How to Teach Using Primary Source Documents
Using primary and secondary source documents and images in lessons provides students with opportunities to develop vocabulary, critical analysis, comparison, verbal and written expression skills. Depending upon the age, grade level, and skill objectives, documents may be used in their entirety, as excerpts, and/or in tandem with other sources.
How can teachers help upper elementary and middle school students develop the ability to analyze these sources?
This post will explain what students are expected to do in high school, as well as ideas for introducing primary and secondary sources to students in upper elementary and middle school.
High School Expectations
For Secondary Level use of documents in lessons, it is common to present texts and visuals that display opposing points of view on historical events or moments in time. This strategy develops comparison skills and provides students with the opportunity to explore biases and logical fallacies in historical records.
The presentation of opposing viewpoints allows students to develop their own perspective and to create defensible thesis statements about specific topics, themes, or content in the curriculum.
The following example shows political cartoons in favor of and opposed to Abraham Lincoln:
In this case, students would use the interrogative question stems who, what, where, when, why, and how to analyze each of the political cartoons on Abraham Lincoln and his position on slavery during the Civil War era.
Students would determine:
- which cartoon presents a favorable point of view and which has an unfavorable. (comparison)
- what the likely sources of each cartoon would be. (sourcing)
- what the purpose of each cartoon is. (intended audience)
- how the comparison between the two political cartoons help the viewer understand the Civil War. (contextualization)
Using Sources in Elementary & Middle School
Primary and middle grades teachers can introduce younger students to the analysis of texts and images. With support, students can develop the ability to analyze, critique, and develop reasonable theories concerning historical events, developments, and ideas.
A primary source is a first-hand account of an event or moment in time. These sources have actually experienced or present the actual moment as it was experienced to the reader/viewer. Primary sources are used to help provide context, perspective, and/or insight into specific moments in time.
For primary and middle grades, text excerpts are fine as long as they are focused on the specific skill or standard being addressed. For example, here is an excerpt from the Declaration of Independence:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” – Thomas Jefferson
Begin by having the students read the excerpt and discuss what they believe the text means. Have students identify and define the following terms in the text: self-evident, endowed, unalienable, rights, liberty, and pursuit. Document analysis then utilized the interrogative questions: who, what, where, when, why, and how.
Who is the author of the text? Have students share what they know about Thomas Jefferson. As the facilitator, you may need to provide background information as it relates to the skill or standard being addressed.
What is the purpose of the document? Have students share their ideas about the purpose of the Declaration of Independence and this specific excerpt from it. What is the document addressing? What are the immediate and long term impacts of the document?
Where was the document produced? How does the origin of the document relate to its purpose and meaning? To whom is the document addressed?
When was the document produced? What are the social, political, and economic factors of the time period that may have influenced the writing of the document? How has the meaning of the document changed or remained the same over time?
Why was the document produced? What were the aims and intents of the document’s content? What is the document addressing? What immediate conflicts or differences were mediated by the production of the document?
How does the document relate to the time it was written as opposed to how it relates to us today? To whom do the document’s contents apply when written? Now? How does the document connect its time period to ours?
Secondary sources are documents and visuals that are produced after the fact by someone who was not actually present for the moment in time being presented. Secondary sources tend to offer interpretations and impressions of what the producer believes the event to be about. Secondary sources are not as credible as primary sources due to this fact.
Using visuals in lessons provides a different perspective for students. Analysis of images follows the same format as text documents, however, students will have to learn how to “close read” the image to gain deeper understanding. For example, the following is a painting titled American Progress by John Gast c. 1872:
Begin by having the students discuss what they see in the painting. Have students identify specific images in different parts of the painting. The facilitator will need to provide background and context information for students’ analysis of the painting as it relates to the specific skill and/or standard being addressed by the lesson. Document analysis then utilized the interrogative questions: who, what, where, when, why, and how.
Who is the creator of the image? As the facilitator, you may need to provide background information about George A. Crofutt as it relates to the skill or standard being addressed.
What is the purpose of the image? Have students share their ideas about the purpose of the American progress and this specific excerpt from it. What is the image addressing? What are the immediate and long term impacts of the image?
Where was the image produced? How does the origin of the image relate to its purpose and meaning? To whom is the image addressed?
When was the image produced? What are the social, political, and economic factors of the time period that may have influenced the painting of the image? How has the meaning of the image changed or remained the same over time?
Why was the image produced? What were the aims and intents of the image’s content? What is the image addressing? What immediate conflicts or differences were presented by the production of the image?
How does the image relate to the time it was produced as opposed to how it relates to us today? To whom do the image’s contents apply when painted? Now? How does the image connect its time period to ours?
Good Sources of Primary and Secondary Materials
Teachers can find primary and secondary sources on many websites, especially history or government ones. A few great places to start searching for sources – and sometimes lesson ideas as well – are:
- The Gilder Lehrman Institute: https://www.gilderlehrman.org/
- The Library of Congress: https://loc.gov/
- Boston University Libraries: https://library.bu.edu/c.php?g=516517&p=3541627
- The National Archives: https://www.archives.gov/education/research/primary-sources
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