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Tip of the Week – DESCRIBE Primary Source Strategy

There’s nothing like a great document. But it’s tough finding ways to use them with kids, especially those kids who always seem to struggle. The following strategy called DESCRIBE is based on work done by the Library of Congress. It’s designed to help kids activate background knowledge, understand key vocabulary and comprehend text.

And an added benefit? DESCRIBE helps all kids engage with primary sources but is specifically designed to help struggling learners.

The strategy is based on seven research-based instructional principles:

  • actively involving students in the learning process
  • presenting abstract information in concrete forms
  • organizing information for students
  • tying new information to previously learned information
  • distinguishing important information from unimportant information
  • making relationships among pieces of information explicit
  • explicitly showing students how to learn specific types of content

The steps in the strategy are represented by the mnemonic device DESCRIBE and the graphic organizer are presented in the boxes below.

  • Describe the document
  • Explain the concept
  • State the unit
  • Comb through the document for unique features and new vocabulary
  • Read and as you read ask yourself, “What is this about?”
  • Indicate your response in the appropriate box
  • Bring it all together

(Download the blank template here.)

The process

To start, you should:

  • select a text-based primary source;
  • divide the document into three equal parts or choose three important paragraphs from it for reading;
  • follow the steps of the DESCRIBE strategy to complete the graphic organizer, and;
  • use the completed graphic organizer as a guide when implementing the strategy in the classroom.

Before starting the activity, provide students with a copy of the original primary source, including its bibliographic information, and a blank graphic organizer. Post the DESCRIBE strategy steps where kids can see them.

To start, draw your students’ attention to three items: the content (i.e., the text-based primary source), the DESCRIBE strategy steps and the DESCRIBE graphic organizer.

The teacher guides students through the strategy steps while completing the graphic organizer. Each step of the DESCRIBE strategy is explained in more detail in the example below using a letter written by Tilton C. Reynolds, a Union soldier, to his mother, Juliana Smith Reynolds, in 1864 during the Civil War.

(Use a transparency on an overhead, a document camera or a computer so that students can see your additions to the document.)

Describe the document

Present the primary source to students and asks them for a description of the document. Help kids to paraphrase the information and write it in the title and description of document box (1) on the graphic organizer. Students then copy the information onto their graphic organizers.

Explain the concept

Briefly explain the current concept or Big Idea being studied and write it in the top section of the concept/unit box (2). Have students copy the information on their graphic organizers.

Comb through the document for unique features and new vocabulary

You should model combing through (skimming) the document to identify unique features and new vocabulary. A think-aloud should be used to demonstrate the thought process that the teacher is using to recognize unique features of the document and to identify new vocabulary.

As you model, underline vocabulary and make notes about unique features on the document. After modeling the process for the first part of the document, have kids jump in by having them to pick up where you left off. As they work, stop them every few minutes and encourage responses from students – underline and make notes on the document as they share.

When finished with this process, you can model summarizing the information (margin notes and underlined vocabulary) and write it in the unique features and new vocabulary boxes (3); or you can simply ask students to do this on their own.

Read and ask yourself “What is this about?”

With the first section or paragraph of the document, you can again model reading the text and ask out loud – “What is this paragraph about?”

Record your response to the question in the first box under read-ask-answer on the graphic organizer (number 4, box 1). Have students continue the process through the rest of the document.

Bring it all together

Lead your students in a discussion about the main ideas of the document and together, develop a list of statements summarizing the main ideas using information from the unique features, new vocabulary, and read-ask a question-answer boxes of the DESCRIBE graphic organizer. These statements are written in the bring it all together box (5).

Examine the graphic organizer

As the last step, the teacher reviews the completed DESCRIBE graphic organizer with students in an interactive way, asking them questions and requesting further explanation about the information written on the graphic organizer. The teacher should model how to ask a question based on information from the bring it all together box and solicit responses, then encourage students to pose their own questions for discussion.

(Download a completed sample here.)

– H/T to Sunflower Social Studies and Jamie Dawson

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