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Newsela adds “tampered” primary sources

Last week, I had the chance to lead a quick conversation centered on this simple question:

“Is it ever okay to tamper with history?”

As in . . . is it okay to modify and edit the primary and secondary sources that our students use as part of the historical thinking process?

It’s always an interesting conversation. Because without fail, you get both ends of the continuum. On one end, you’ll have teachers who will argue for “absolutely not. You never mess with the raw data of history.” Or the other side that sees no problem with massive changes in vocabulary, wording, and voice.

I’m gonna fall somewhere in the middle. There are steps that you need to follow but without some editing and modification, most primary sources are not accessible to most of your students. Providing evidence that is usable to your kids is one of the first steps in creating historically literate students and modifying difficult to understand evidence is often necessary.

An article written in 2009 by historical thinking gurus Sam Wineburg and Daisy Martin for the National Council for the Social Studies journal, Social Education, provides some helpful tips for what this can look like.

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

We are unabashedly urging history teachers to tamper with history.

And in addition to offering a variety of arguments supporting that statement, the two also provide a three step process for how you can do the tampering. It’s an article you need to spend time walking through – perfect for the year’s first department meeting.

But once convinced, most of us run into the next set of problems. Finding the time to doing the tampering or finding already pre-tampered documents. The curriculum at the Stanford History Education Group Reading Like a Historian is a great place to start but other modified documents are practically non-existent.

Until now.

The good folks at Newsela recently added a new section focused just on primary sources. And if you’re not already using Newsela, well . . . you need to be. Basically Newsela provides a huge database of articles on contemporary issues and current events.

But wait. There’s more. Each article can be automatically modified to different reading levels so that every kid can access the information in the article. You can create classes and assign readings while measuring the reading comprehension of your students. Pretty sweet.

But I’m guessing you can see where this is going.

Yup. Newsela just added a new feature they’re calling the Library. An article over at Tech Crunch clued me into this very cool new tool. The Library

contains a slew of primary source material, historical and biographical content adapted to different reading levels in both English and Spanish.

You caught that bit about primary sources, right? Yup. Primary sources – modified and tampered with that are available at different reading levels. Say you want students to use Andrew Jackson’s 1835 letter to the Cherokee. Depending on your kids, you can have them work with the original or at a variety of different levels and versions.

letter hard

letter easy

Wineburg suggests both – give kids an accessible version but be sure to mess with the original as well. Newsela lets you do that.

The cool thing is that the Library also provides a series of biographies, speeches, and basic history articles as well as primary sources. And it’s not a huge database of stuff yet but you’ll get many of the basic US and World history documents that you’re probably already using.

newsela primary sources

You need to create a free account to access the full documents. If you want the full meal deal with Newsela Pro, there’s going to be some money involved. Try the free version for a while – with full access to articles but without access to the teacher admin panel. If all you’re looking for is access to modified evidence and resources, free is probably just right.

And your kids will walk away smarter because they’ll have access to evidence that they can begin to use to solve your historical problems.

9 Comments Post a comment
  1. Mr. C #

    I use Newsela with my Current Events class and was unaware of the primary source site. Wrapping up my lessons on the Declaration in my freshmen classes, I have always tried to find a lower readability level for my students. I think I just “geeked” out right here. Thanks for the info Glenn.

    August 24, 2016
    • glennw #

      Mr. C,

      I’m loving the tools at Newsela. Glad you can use their goodies!


      August 24, 2016
  2. Although not a teacher I do enjoy reading your blog. Several years ago I read Kyle Ward’s book “History in the Making.” He reviewed how text books have changed various historical accounts over the years. Teachers need to posses a good understanding of history and be able to explain changes reflected in various accounts. It sounds like the info in your blog should help teachers be as factual as possible.

    August 24, 2016
    • glennw #


      Thanks for the comment! Having kids review history books from different periods of time is a great way for them to start to understand bias, perspective, and context. And I’m always hoping that the different blog posts can help teachers do their jobs better!


      August 25, 2016
  3. Cady Hart #

    In terms of the changing of history, it is not much so how history has changed but how different interpretations arise over the years. It is important for students to be able to understand the concept of historical inquiry in order to realize the vast amount of answers in a social studies classroom. For some instruction, there are certain right or wrong answers but for a number of history questions, different answers are sufficient if they are accompanied by proven evidence. At the beginning of each school year, I have my students bring a bag of artifacts that describe the kind of person they are and what they do. From there, they all bring them in and switch their artifact bags. They must analyze the artifacts and provide a narrative about that person’s life. For the most part, students just say specific about the bag and provide facts. Only about one or two students successfully write a narrative. From there, I point out that history is for the most part stories in which historians have analyzed a number of artifacts in order to establish a certain perspective in history. The tampering of primary sources should not be done. If points in history are subject to change with historians researching, the process in which they got to a different conclusion should be implemented in readings in order for students to understand how changes were made.

    Having students understand bias and context of anything is essential to elaborate on in a history classroom. There are a lot of great posts in your blog and I am looking forward to reading more this upcoming school year!

    C. HART

    August 28, 2016
    • glennw #


      Thanks for the comment! I like your beginning of the year activity – it sends a great message about solving problems with evidence AND communicating those solutions. (Here’s another version of the same activity:

      And I like the idea of connecting history as stories that must written using evidence. But I still believe that we need to find ways to ensure that our students can access that evidence. And at times they may mean that we should adapt the evidence that we give them. I still remember the difficulty in trying to use the original version Declaration of Independence with 13 year olds – I like how Wineburg provides a specific set of strategies we can use to make the evidence more accessible to our kids.

      Thanks for dropping by. Have a great school year – would love to hear more of what works for you!


      August 28, 2016

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