In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Multiple Documents Literacy: Theory, Research, and Application

  • Introduction
  • Theoretical Frameworks
  • The Role of Knowledge and Beliefs
  • Strategic Processing and Emotional Arousal
  • Writing from Multiple Sources
  • Reading Tasks and Goals
  • Reading on the Internet
  • Assessment
  • Teaching Multiple Documents Literacy

Education Multiple Documents Literacy: Theory, Research, and Application
Helge Strømsø, Ivar Braten
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 April 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 March 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0092


Multiple documents literacy refers to reading and comprehension of different text-based sources on the same situation, topic, or phenomenon. Such sources may include pictures or graphical representations, although this field of research has focused mainly on documents as texts. While research on reading traditionally has aimed at illuminating how readers deal with single texts, people’s increasing access and exposure to innumerable information sources during the last decades have shown that a single-text paradigm may be insufficient. When working on inquiry tasks in school, students often will search outside the textbook to find relevant information. In addition, outside school, in daily life, people frequently will need to make decisions based on several different text-based information sources. With an increasing number of information sources located on the Internet, a broader set of reading skills is needed, such as competence in searching for information, evaluating information sources, and integrating information across different documents. In contrast, authors, editors, and publishers take on much of the responsibility for those processes when printed texts are produced. In a historical perspective, multiple documents literacy was mainly required from experts. Lawyers would, for example, need to consult a number of documents while working on a case, such as the code of law and relevant legal cases. To academics, the reading of multiple documents has for centuries constituted an important aspect of research and knowledge development. In today’s society, however, nonexperts are also frequently faced with the task of interpreting, integrating, and evaluating information across several different documents, and students need to learn how to deal with that task. Such constructive and critical reading may represent not only challenges, but also opportunities for deeper learning in that readers processing multiple perspectives on an issue may also gain a richer understanding of that particular issue.

Theoretical Frameworks

Multiple document literacy is a field of research that expands cognitive theory on single-text reading. Studies of reading of multiple sources in history were an important inspiration for the development of the field. Wineburg 1991 investigates differences between high school students and historians in reading a set of documents about the Battle of Lexington. Results indicated that the two groups differed in their conceptions of the task and the textual materials, as well as in the heuristics they used when working with the documents. The most influential model of multiple documents literacy, the documents model, is presented in Perfetti, et al. 1999. In this model, readers’ mental representations of single texts are expanded to mental representations of multiple documents. The documents model is grounded in research on the reading of multiple documents in history and assumes that different documents describing the same situation, to some extent, will be incomplete and contradictory. If readers are to construct a mental representation of the situation from multiple documents, and not from a number of isolated representations, they need to integrate and compare information across the documents as well as to tag information about the different documents (source information) to information presented in the documents. The model has been further developed and expanded, also highlighting processes involved in multiple document comprehension and the goal-directed nature of reading. Based on the documents model and later sub-models, List and Alexander 2019 proposes three stages in readers’ use of multiple texts, whereas Britt, et al. 2018 develops a model of purposeful reading in which the role of task and context is foregrounded. While reading multiple documents, readers will frequently be exposed to different, and often contradictory, perspectives. Van Meter, et al. 2020 presents a broad and thorough introduction to how learners deal with that challenge, whereas Stadtler and Bromme 2014 presents a specific model of how readers might respond to conflicting scientific information. A handbook, Braasch, et al. 2018 provides a comprehensive overview of the field in showing the relevance of multiple document literacy to different content areas. The importance of multiple document literacy in modern societies also has been clearly stated in the theoretical framework of the PISA program conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) 2019).

  • Braasch, Jason L. G., Ivar Bråten, and Matthew T. McCrudden. 2018. Handbook of multiple source use. New York: Routledge.

    DOI: 10.4324/9781315627496

    The handbook represents state of the art in research on multiple source use. It contains six sections with chapters from prominent researchers in the field. The first section presents theoretical frameworks ranging from cognitive to social psychological perspectives, with the other sections covering topics related to individual differences, multiple source use in and out of the classroom, and teaching and assessing multiple source use.

  • Britt, M. Anne, Jean-François Rouet, and Amanda Durik. 2018. Literacy beyond text comprehension: A theory of purposeful reading. New York: Routledge.

    In this book, the authors presented a model (RESOLV) of reading as problem solving in which reading in the real world was regarded as a goal-directed activity embedded in a situational context. The model builds on prior frameworks of multiple document literacy and incorporates theory on self-regulated learning and motivation. The importance of framing reading as a purposeful activity is highlighted.

  • List, Alexandra, and Patricia A. Alexander. 2019. Toward an integrated framework of multiple text use. Educational Psychologist 54.1: 20–39.

    DOI: 10.1080/00461520.2018.1505514

    In this article the authors present an integrated framework of factors that need to be considered when studying readers’ interaction with multiple documents. They suggest multiple document use to involve three different stages: preparation, execution, and production. The framework integrates a number of individual difference variables of cognitive and affective nature related to the different stages. Specifically, the inclusion of affective variables expands prior models in the field.

  • Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). 2019. PISA 2018 reading framework. In PISA 2018 assessment and analytical framework. By Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 21–71. Paris: OECD Publishing.

    The Program for International Student Assessment’s (PISA) is the OECD’s periodic student performance testing program. The 2018 PISA reading framework describes the complexity of reading in modern societies in which students are exposed to a multitude of information sources—both digital and printed. The framework describes important categories of document processing and task management required by skilled reading.

  • Perfetti, Charles A., Jean-François Rouet, and M. Anne Britt. 1999. Toward a theory of documents representation. In The construction of mental representations during reading. Edited by Herre van Oostendorp and Susan R. Goldman, 99–122. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

    The documents model is presented as a theoretical framework for understanding how experts construct mental representations of multiple documents. The model includes two main components: the situations model, representing the content of the documents, and the intertext model, representing information about the documents and relationships among documents.

  • Stadtler, Marc, and Rainer Bromme. 2014. The content-source integration model: A taxonomic description of how readers comprehend conflicting scientific information. In Processing inaccurate information: Theoretical and applied perspectives from cognitive science and the educational sciences. Edited by David N. Rapp and J. L. G. Braasch, 379–402. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    When using multiple information sources, readers will frequently encounter conflicting scientific information. The information flow generated by the COVID-19 pandemic illustrates some of the challenges information consumers might encounter. In this chapter, the authors propose a model illustrating three stages in readers’ responses to textual conflicts, with awareness of contradictions considered a prerequisite for constructing textual coherence and, if possible, resolving the conflict.

  • van Meter, Peggy, Alexandra List, Doug Lombardi, and Panayiota Kendeou. 2020. Handbook of learning from multiple representations and perspectives. New York: Routledge.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780429443961

    Multiple document literacy typically implies that readers are exposed to documents representing different perspectives on the same situation, topic, or phenomenon. This handbook represents a thorough introduction to different perspectives on how learners process, evaluate, and integrate messages from different information sources. Researchers from different areas of research, such as education, psychology, library sciences, and media, discuss challenges and benefits of learning from multiple perspectives.

  • Wineburg, Sam. 1991. Historical problem solving: A study of the cognitive processes used in the evaluation of documentary and pictorial evidence. Journal of Educational Psychology 83.1: 73–87.

    DOI: 10.1037/0022-0663.83.1.73

    This seminal paper describes an expert-novice study on reading and judgments of multiple documents in history. Think-alouds revealed that experts used three types of heuristics while reading multiple documents: corroboration, sourcing, and contextualization. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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