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10 things to think about as you integrate primary sources

As the social studies and history disciplines move more to a “doing” model that focuses on developing thinking skills, it becomes even more important to incorporate different sorts of evidence into instruction. But sometimes in the rush to use a variety of evidence, we can get too caught up in the “all primary sources, all the time” school of thought.

Yes. We need to use primary sources as part of the process. But we don’t always think it through completely. We add primary sources without any conversation about how or why we should. How many primary sources? Which ones? Why not these? How do we balance perspectives? Should we balance perspective? Should we modify the documents? Why and how should we modify them?

In the October History Matters newsletter from the NCHE, Lee Eysturlid does a nice job of addressing these sorts of questions in his article title The Top 10 Considerations When Using Primary Sources with Grades 8-12.

I’ve summarized his ideas here but you need to head over there to get the full effect.

Why are you using a primary source?
This is a really good place for any teacher to start. If you have not established the context or if the “voice” is too difficult for your audience, maybe it’s better to start with a secondary sources. If you do decide that a primary source fits what you are doing, be picky.

What officially is a primary source?
A primary source is usually defined as an original document, a creative work or a relic or an artifact. So this includes not just text but also diaries, speeches, photos, audio clips, databases, and all ton of government records. A creative work includes art work of all types, from paintings to novels to movies to music. Relics and artifacts can be actual artifacts or buildings but can also be in the form of pictures of architecture, clothing, or archeological items.

Primary sources and understanding what is “valid” versus “factual”
Understanding the past means that students must search out a plausible interpretation of the evidence and learn to deal with the fact while there might seem to be a best answer, there is not a definitive “truth.” This messy reality is served well by the use of primary sources, as they require interpretation.

Where to find sources?
Finding source can be problematic. Although the web is full of sites that have sources in whole or in part, sites can be political in nature or be edited badly. This is particularly true for works in translation. Best to search out one or two academically oriented sites, preferably ones that also have background material. (The Library of Congress, National Archives, World Digital Library, or the Primary Sources page at Social Studies Central are good places to start.)

Gaining the necessary background
Too often we see a primary source, a political cartoon for example, as easy and simple to understand. But even something as apparently self-evident as a political cartoon is fraught with party politics and references specific to its own time. Before selecting a source, it is essential for you to do some background reading.

How many, how long?
This is the moment when you must make an assessment of the inherent abilities and level of your students. While a State of the Union address or a Supreme Court case might work for an advanced class, an ESL class might do well with political cartoons – as long as they have captions – and a several pertinent quotes. Again, as stated above, a little bit of time and thought in searching the sources can really pay off.

Introduction first or read the source?
What background do your students already have? What context is needed to understand the sources? Do your students have that context? You might want your kids to struggle with evidence without the background – using the evidence itself as the way to build background and context. With younger kids, this takes a lot of work to help give kids the skills they need to make this work. But it can be powerful learning.

Primary sources as debate drivers
Primary sources make excellent material for debate. A simple example is the Federalists and the anti-Federalists. Dividing a class between the two and giving students one or two sources representing each view opens a world of preparation questions and necessitates getting as close to the real meaning as they can.

Primary sources for writing papers
A mix of primary and secondary materials provides evidence that is ideal for writing prompts. The documents allow your kids that moment as historian as they engage in the search for valid evidence.

Being empathetic
The use of primary sources provide a powerful tool for teaching empathy and the ability to understand a variety of perspectives. Grasping the “why” of past actions requires seeing that period through the eyes of those directly involved. This means investigating the ideas held by slave owners, abolitionists, politicians, and those enslaved. Of SS soldiers, Holocaust victims, bystanders, and rescuers. Of Hawks and Doves. Of colonizer and colonized. Of devleoping and developed countries. The goal is seeking to contextualize and understand – not always agree with – the thoughts and actions of people from the past.


Four reasons not to use primary sources (and 27 ways to eliminate those reasons).


5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Whitney #

    As a future teacher I found this extremely enlightening and will definitely be using most of these in my own future classroom.

    December 1, 2015
    • glennw #

      I’m glad you found some useful stuff. Good luck as you continue your studies!


      December 1, 2015

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  1. 4 reasons not to use primary sources. (And 27 ways to eliminate those reasons) | History Tech
  2. 4 reasons for not using primary sources (And 27 strategies for eliminating those reasons) | Doing Social Studies
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