Education Multiple Documents Literacy
Helge Stromso, Ivar Braten
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 April 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 May 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0092


Multiple documents literacy refers to reading and comprehension of different text-based sources on the same topic or situation. 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. 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.

General Overviews

Multiple documents literacy is a relatively new field of research that expands cognitive theory on single-text and single-reader perspectives. Other research areas have longer histories of studying how people deal with manifold information sources, and in domains such as literary criticism, linguistics, and biblical research, the term intertextuality often is used when researchers focus on how social and cultural processes are involved when readers relate texts to other texts. Shuart-Faris and Bloome 2004 presents a number of examples of how intertextuality is related to educational activities, while Goldman 2004 explicitly links intertextuality to cognitive models of reading. 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. Two influential studies on the reading of multiple documents in history are Wineburg 1991 and Perfetti, et al. 1995. In Rouet 2006, reading multiple documents is also related to the reading of hypertext and the reading of different kinds of online information sources, while Rouet and Britt 2011 relates multiple documents literacy to task-oriented reading.

  • Goldman, Susan R. 2004. Cognitive aspects of constructing meaning through and across multiple texts. In Uses of intertextuality in classroom and educational research. Edited by Nora Shuart-Faris and David Bloome, 317–351. Greenwich, CT: Information Age.

    The author argues that multiple documents literacy is needed by members of knowledge societies and discusses meaning construction from, and mental representations of, both single and multiple documents. Several studies of young adolescents’ reading of multiple documents are described.

  • Perfetti, Charles A., M. Anne Britt, and Mara C. Georgi. 1995. Text-based learning and reasoning: Studies in history. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

    In this book, the authors describe and discuss results from a learning study in which college students read history texts through a set of eight sessions. Students’ use of documents in reasoning is highlighted and a model accounting for mental representation of multiple documents is discussed.

  • 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.

  • Rouet, Jean-François. 2006. The skills of document use: From text comprehension to web-based learning. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

    This book constitutes an excellent research review of cognitive abilities involved in readers’ processing and use of complex documents. Expert text comprehension is related to multiple documents literacy, and issues of information technology in the form of hypertext systems and web-based information sources are examined.

  • Rouet, Jean-François, and M. Anne Britt. 2011. Relevance processes in multiple document comprehension. In Text relevance and learning from text. Edited by Matthew T. McCrudden, Joseph P. Magliano, and Gregory Schraw, 19–52. Greenwich, CT: Information Age.

    Reading is described as a contextualized activity and readers’ goals are related to how they process multiple documents. A model of multiple documents comprehension in which readers’ intentions and judgments of relevance are taken into consideration is presented.

  • Shuart-Faris, Nora, and David Bloome, eds. 2004. Uses of intertextuality in classroom and educational research. Greenwich, CT: Information Age.

    This book includes a collection of influential papers on intertextuality in educational and classroom research. Several different research traditions are represented and the authors show that intertextuality may be related to cognitive, social, and cultural processes of meaning making.

  • 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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