Learning With Primary Sources


Primary sources provide a window into the past. They provide unfiltered access to the record of artistic, social, scientific, and political thought and achievement during a specific time period. People who lived during that period created these records.

Bringing students into close contact with these unique, often profoundly personal, documents and objects can give them a very real sense of what it was like to be alive during a long-past era.

Deck plans for VIKING, George G. Sharp Collection, SSHSA Archives.

1. Engage students

  • Primary sources help students relate in a personal way to events of the past and promote a deeper understanding of history as a series of human events.
  • Because primary sources are snippets of history, they encourage students to seek additional evidence through research.
  • First-person accounts of events helps make them more real, fostering active reading and response.

2. Develop critical thinking skills

  • Many state standards support teaching with primary sources, which require students to be both critical and analytical as they read and examine documents and objects.
  • Primary sources are often incomplete and have little context. Students must use prior knowledge and work with multiple primary sources to find patterns.
  • In analyzing primary sources, students move from concrete observations and facts to questioning and making inferences about the materials.
  • Questions of creator bias, purpose, and point of view may challenge students’ assumptions.

3. Construct knowledge

  • Inquiry into primary sources encourages students to wrestle with contradictions and compare multiple sources that represent differing points of view, confronting the complexity of the past.
  • Students construct knowledge as they form reasoned conclusions, base their conclusions on evidence, and connect primary sources to the context in which they were created, synthesizing information from multiple sources.
  • Integrating what they glean from comparing primary sources with what they already know, and what they learn from research, allows students to construct content knowledge and deepen understanding.

SSHSA Archives.

Using Primary Sources

Before you begin:

  • Choose at least two or three primary sources that support the learning objectives and are accessible to students.
  • Consider how students can compare these items to other primary and secondary sources.
  • Identify an analysis tool or guiding questions that students will use to analyze the primary sources

1. Engage students with primary sources.

Draw on students’ prior knowledge of the topic.

Ask students to closely observe each primary source.

  • Who created this primary source?
  • When was it created?
  • Where does your eye go first?

Help students see key details.

  • What do you see that you didn’t expect?
  • What powerful words and ideas are expressed?

Encourage students to think about their personal response to the source.

  • What feelings and thoughts does the primary source trigger in you?
  • What questions does it raise?

2. Promote student inquiry.

Encourage students to speculate about each source, its creator, and its context.

  • What was happening during this time period?
  • What was the creator’s purpose in making this primary source?
  • What does the creator do to get his or her point across?
  • What was this primary source’s audience?
  • What biases or stereotypes do you see?

Ask if this source agrees with other primary sources, or with what the students already know.

  • Ask students to test their assumptions about the past.
  • Ask students to find other primary or secondary sources that offer support or contradiction.

3. Assess how students apply critical thinking and analysis skills to primary sources.

Have students summarize what they’ve learned.

  • Ask for reasons and specific evidence to support their conclusions.
  • Help students identify questions for further investigation, and develop strategies for how they might answer them.

Additional Resources

Use these primary source analysis tools from the Library of Congress.

Engage Students with Primary Sources from the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

Teaching with Documents by the National Archive.