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Whether using primary sources for the first time, a veteran teacher looking for new sources, or a teacher needing help finding analysis strategies to improve student understanding, our Education Program has assembled analysis strategies, lesson plans, and links to a variety of primary sources for the classroom.

Why Primary Sources?

Primary sources are the original records documenting events of the past. When incorporating primary sources into lesson plans, students can engage with history in a way that cannot be done with a textbook. Students become detectives seeking to understand why records were created, what messages they impart, and their impact on history. When they analyze these records to find answers, students actively participate in higher-level thinking and learner-led inquiry. 

More than Just Documents!

Yes, primary sources are often documents. Yet, the grammar and vocabulary that documents contain is often too difficult for students to understand. Students often lack the analytical framework to understand these complex sources. So how about solving these problems by starting with primary sources such as objects and images?

If working with younger students or students not experienced in document analysis, introduce them to the process using objects and images. Often containing the same historical information as documents, objects and images are more approachable for younger students. These primary sources often tie into their prior knowledge schema in a way documents do not and build analytical abilities that will encourage students to develop the skills necessary to engage with documents and more complicated objects. For students who frequently engage with documents, incorporating objects and images into lesson plans serves to further develop their analytical skills and ensure a more well-rounded understanding of historical events. 

Primary vs. Secondary Sources 

Primary sources are the original records of the political, economic, artistic, scientific, social, and intellectual thoughts and achievements of specific historical periods. Used or created  by someone who participated in and witnessed the past firsthand, primary sources offer a variety of perspectives and experiences about events, issues, people, and places. These records can be found anywhere — in a home, a government archive, etc. Examples of primary sources include oral histories, photographs, clothing, weapons, weather records, letters, diaries, treaties, legal agreements, and sound recordings.

Secondary sources are documents, texts, images, and objects about events, issues, people, and places used or created by someone who typically referenced the primary sources for their information. Textbooks are excellent examples of secondary sources.

When incorporating primary sources into the classroom, make sure students know how to differentiate between primary and secondary sources. Both the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) and the Library of Congress have created extensive resource guides for using primary sources in the classroom. 

Finding Primary Sources 

As digitizing primary source materials continues to increase, many useful sites for accessing them and incorporating them into lesson plans may be found at Education Resources. Check out The First Lady and Education for interactive modules highlighting some of the domestic and global initiatives of Mrs. Laura Bush as well as the Photo & Video Galleries, which highlight  some of the photographs, videos, documents, and artifacts from the holdings at the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum. 

Analyzing Primary Sources 

How educators choose to introduce analysis of primary sources into the classroom is often dependent on the students’ level. However, the best strategy to ensure their success is to give students a consistent method for analyzing primary sources and ensure they consistently apply it. This not only provides a concrete schema for approaching primary sources, but it encourages students to develop their inquiry skills.

Teaching Object & Image Analysis 

It is sometimes easier to introduce analytical strategies with objects and images because students often do not need the historical context of an object to gain a basic understanding of what they see. When students are not struggling to understand the historical context and are free to explore the object or image with analytical strategies alone, they often experience success, which encourages them to engage with more complex primary sources.

To help introduce object analysis strategies into the classroom, our Education Program created the Analyzing Historical Objects lesson plan, which includes resources, activities, and a PowerPoint of objects and images.

Simplifying Documents 

If the grammar and vocabulary in primary source documents is too advanced for students, consider trying a strategy to simplify them. Use a tag cloud generator, such as Wordle, to highlight key words and concepts. Another strategy is to practice “Divide and Conquer” by assigning students one sentence of the document to rewrite into their own words. By sharing their interpretations, students engage in analysis and put together the full meaning of the document. Finally, consider a performance of the document. This could mean partnering with a drama teacher, asking older students to assist, or finding a pre-recorded version to share.

Wordles: US Documents

Recognizing Primary & Secondary Sources 

Using a vocabulary activity, brainstorming, and “Source Scenarios,” students learn to differentiate between primary and secondary sources. They will also consider the role primary and secondary sources and historical events play in their lives.