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Is it ever okay to tamper with the past? Modifying primary sources to make them accessible

modifying docs

Maybe this is not as big a topic as I think it is. Maybe it’s just me. But it seems as if the idea of modifying primary sources in order to make them more “user friendly” for our students, especially younger kids, is kind of a big deal.

Maybe I’m wrong. As I travel around the country, I get the chance to work with lots of social studies teachers – who by the very nature of their position have a tendency to voice strong opinions about, well . . . just about everything.

Including among other things: K-State football, KU basketball, Democrat, Republican, Texas BBQ, Kansas City BBQ, and iPads vs. Chromebooks.

But no matter where I’m at the question of modifying or altering primary sources for student use in the classroom is a topic that gets everybody’s juices going. The concept is a pretty simple one. Use a primary document as an instructional tool but before handing it over to students, you edit the document – changing length or vocabulary or sentence structure or deleting unnecessary elements or whatever might hold kids back from being able to make sense of the document.

This, of course, is where the debate begins. What is unnecessary? What length? What vocabulary? Why would someone even suggest modifying the raw data of history? History purists will argue that altering primary sources alters history itself. That inserting modern language and editing length while still calling the document a primary source is dishonest. That this sort of instructional practice changes the tone and original bias of the document.

Others in the English / Language Arts world often suggest that modifying primary sources shouldn’t be done for other reasons – that altering primary sources deny students the opportunity to practice working with difficult and unfamiliar text. That students need to struggle with language and that modified evidence denies students necessary rigor.

And I often hear teachers ask this sort of question:

Are we really allowed to do this?

as if they would be breaking some kind of double secret history teachers code.

But I think anyone who visits just about any middle school or high school history classroom will start to realize that asking students to solve historical problems using “pure,” unmodified primary sources will often lead to frustrated students and little actual learning. I recently spent several days in a large urban school district and listened to descriptions of students reading three, four, and even five grades below grade level. Expecting struggling readers to handle the full version of the 1862 Homestead Act isn’t realistic.

It’s perhaps not a perfect connection but I think the Matthew Effect – where the word rich become word richer and the word poor get poorer – fits in here. When kids struggle to understand primary sources, they have a tendency to struggle even more the next time they work with primary sources. We need to create a smoother on ramp to making sense of evidence for our students so that they can become successful later on.

Providing evidence that is accessible to students is key to training them to think and to solve problems. And I believe it is possible to modify documents while still giving kids the chance to struggle with big ideas and rigorous text.

What does that look like in practice? I’ve shared before the respect I have for Sam Wineburg and the work he has done over the last decade designing historical thinking activities. And an article that Sam and Daisy Martin wrote in 2009 for the National Council for the Social Studies journal, Social Education, provides some helpful tips for editing primary documents for use by your students.

In Tampering with History: Adapting Primary Sources for Struggling Readers, the two write:

We are unabashedly urging history teachers to tamper with history.

And besides just offering a variety of arguments supporting that statement, they also provide a three step process for how you can do the tampering.

The prudent excerpting of documents (including the liberal use of ellipses) to focus students’ attention on the source’s most relevant aspects, while trying to limit its length to 200 – 300 words. The goal of source work is to teach students how to read carefully. The longer the document, the less likely this goal will be achieved.

The selective modification of complex sentences and syntax; conventionalizing spelling, punctuation, and capitalization; changing some vocabulary in order to render the document more accessible to struggling readers.

Presentation is all-important to struggling readers, who typically shut down when faced with a page of densely packed text. Your sources should be presented using a large font (at least 16-point type) with ample white space on the page. Anything less intimidates readers accustomed to failure. Use italics to signal key words. Bold challenging words and provide a vocabulary legend in the margin or below the text.

Need some specific examples? Head over to the excellent Teaching History site for an online article written by Sam’s Stanford History Education Group. Titled Adapting Documents for the Classroom: Equity and Access, the article provides examples of original and modified documents for high school, middle school, and elementary classrooms.

The article also provides a few other tips that can help while modifying documents including:

  • Choose a document that is relevant to the historical question or topic that your class is studying. Consider what you want students to get out of the document. Will they try to unravel a historical puzzle? Corroborate another document? Dive deeper into a particular topic? Write a focus question for the lesson and the document.
  • Make sure that the source of the document is clear. State whether you found it online or in a book, clearly identify when, where, by whom, and for whom the source was originally created.
  • Create a head note that includes background information and even a brief reading guide. This helps students to focus on what they’re reading while using background knowledge to make sense of it.

You also find some very useful suggestions of what to avoid when using modified documents with students.

Another great resource is the Stanford History Education Group’s Reading Like a Historian and Beyond the Bubble web sites. Both are direct results of the articles I’ve highlighted today.

Training kids to think historically is difficult. It becomes even more difficult if students are struggling readers or have little experience making sense of the evidence we provide. Modifying documents appropriately and judiciously before handing them to our kids just makes sense to me. This doesn’t mean that we never provide the originals. That we aren’t careful to retain the tone and bias of the original. That there is not rigor embedded in the kinds of questions we ask. And it doesn’t mean that we never get to the point where our kids are able to read and analyze evidence in what one teacher called “real time.”

It simply means that we’re scaffolding tasks and adapting our instruction to meet our kids where they’re at right now. And that’s always a good thing.



20 Comments Post a comment
  1. I really like this article and the great resources you provided here. I never really struggled with the idea of modifying primary sources, especially if the curricular goal was to focus on the historical context, evaluate an argument, etc. Often we would scaffold this skill – so by the end of the year students were practiced at evaluating primary documents and some of them could analyze the original documents.

    October 27, 2014
    • glennw #

      Mrs. K,

      I think most teachers, especially K-8 teachers, see a real need for modifying texts for students. There’s a fine balance between too much and not enough. And, you’re right, if the goal is to train kids in the process, then modifying documents make a lot of sense.

      Creating some sort of scope and sequence for moving kids along throughout the year makes sense as well – start with lots of modifications and slowly wean students off of it.

      Thanks for the comment!


      October 27, 2014
  2. Amanda #

    The Gilder-Lehrman Institute for American History has some WONDERFUL lessons written for all grade levels utilizing primary sources in ways that kids can understand. My 5th graders and I read through selected portions of Christopher Columbus’s journal. Like Mrs. K, there is definitely scaffolding necessary until students are comfortable with the process of reading a document. Typing a document also helps students interpret it–sometimes just the original script used can be an obstacle!

    October 27, 2014
    • glennw #


      I love the Gilder Lehrman stuff! I haven’t been there in a while – will need to go back and check it out. You’re right with the scaffolding. We need to be moving kids along in the process so they are able to make sense of evidence without us getting in their way. I’m assuming, at least in Kansas, that documents on the state assessment will not be modified and kids will need to have some of those skills developed.

      Thanks for the comment and the reminder about the Gilder Lehrman goodies!


      October 27, 2014
  3. Fran Lo #

    Yes! Yes! Yes! I work with middle schoolers and ESL high schoolers, all of whom struggle with full-length documents and unfamiliar syntax. I want primary sources to be accessible, not something else that makes them feel dumb or overwhelmed. Meeting students where they are is the point exactly.

    October 27, 2014
    • glennw #

      Fran Lo,

      I agree with you . . . we need to find a balance between lots of modification and none at all. Your ESL kids especially need a way to access evidence to solve the problems we give them.

      Good luck as you continue the school and thanks for the comment!


      October 27, 2014
  4. It’s necessary, but who has the time (I’m just kidding, but it is time consuming. I’m thinking one prep period per source).
    Then onto secondary sources! That is needed too.

    October 28, 2014
    • glennw #


      It is a task that takes some time. I do love the SHEG resources that has this stuff already created for you. And, yes, I agree. Kids need to be using all sorts of evidence.


      October 28, 2014
  5. Thanks for writing this Glenn, definitely a real issue. The more I use “primary” sources the more I find myself willing to alter them to make them work for my kids. I hoped with my new 8th grade class this year I could use the raw, real stuff – that lasted about a month. I realized we were spending way more time teaching archaic vocabulary than any kind of history. We can speed up the process by using (another site I got from you!)

    October 29, 2014
    • glennw #


      I agree! The vocab is one of the biggest hurdles kids struggle with when using primary sources. Glossaries, sord walls, definitions and modern examples are all ways I’ve seen teachers combat this. It does take some extra work but in the end it all probably evens out!

      Good luck! Thanks for the comment!


      October 30, 2014
  6. Kwam #

    I am on the verge of becoming a Social Studies teacher and found this topic particularly interesting. I didn’t think it was acceptable to change primary sources to fit the reading abd grade level. I’m sure I will run into this problem when it comes to primary sources that even I have to read through more than once to get the pertinent details.

    October 31, 2014
  7. Glenn –
    Two steps are important when we alter primary sources for access:
    1) Show students the original and/or transcript, even if they don’t spend any time with it.
    2) Be frank that we are looking at an easier-to-understand version. Students need to know (at some point) that this is NOT the same as reading the original, but vital for understanding. There’s no shame in it. We read documents in translation from other languages all the time. How is this any different? (My father, a pastor, studied the Bible in Greek and Hebrew, but I have to pick an English translation and trust it. Even Dad never read Aramaic.)
    – Rich

    November 4, 2014
    • glennw #


      Thanks for the comment!

      You’re right – I agree. Making kids aware of originals and making it clear that they’re working with an altered version is important. The Teaching History folks stress this as well.

      I love your Greek / Hebrew / English examples!


      November 4, 2014

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