Digging Deeper with Primary Sources

By Anthony, Kenneth, V; Miller, Nicole C. | AMLE Magazine, January 2014 | Go to article overview

Digging Deeper with Primary Sources


Anthony, Kenneth, V, Miller, Nicole C., AMLE Magazine


Social studies textbooks touch lightly on the historical people and events being studied, but typically they don't challenge students to stretch their thinking. On the other hand, primary sources- original documents and artifacts related to the time period-can extend student understanding while supporting both social studies and literacy goals, and especially the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for social studies and language arts.

The Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources website (www.loc.gov/teachers) provides access to self-paced online modules that can help teachers learn how to use primary sources in the classroom. The website includes a database of primary sources aligned with state social studies curricula and CCSS, along with tools to help teachers and students analyze and use primary sources to support critical thinking and understanding.

The Library of Congress analysis tools ask students to review the primary source, reflect on what they observe, and then developquestions that can encourage inquiry or discovery learning. The questions students develop using the review-reflectquestion process can lead them to topics they can write about using the Common Core writing standards.

context, content, connections

Our three-part cycle for analyzing primary sources is similar to the Library of Congress model, but has some differences. In this model, students:

consider the context. Answering questions such as "When was it written?", "Why was it written?", and "Who authored the primary source?" can provide a baseline for more in-depth discussion of point of view, fact, opinion, and reasoned judgment. The context also provides the opportunity to discuss and identify how an author's point of view can be identified through loaded language and the inclusion or exclusion of particular information.

consider the content. Questions such as "What was said?", "What arguments were made?", and "What supporting points or details were provided?" can be starting points to deepen understanding of the document and the given topic of study, but also can support domain-specific vocabulary development, text structure analysis, and the identification of central ideas.

Make connections. The teacher must select primary sources that students can relate to prior learning and experiences. Guiding questions include "What connections to your life and/or prior learning can you make?" and "What connections to other events and people in history can you make?"

The three-part process, which does not need to be completed in any particular order, provides a framework to analyze primary sources. Reading and analyzing primary sources using the tools available on the Library of Congress website and the threepart process helps students elaborate on information presented in the text, thus providing them a richer and deeper understanding of history.

An Example from history

Let's use the example of James Oglethorpe's "Rationale for Founding the Georgia Colony." We selected this document because it is from a time period covered in middle grades social studies, but it is not often used because in most middle grades curricula, the focus tends to be placed on the Massachusetts and Virginia colonies. Although this document is less familiar to many students and teachers, it provides a rich example of the motivations that pushed and pulled colonists to North America.

To understand the "Rationale for Founding the Georgia Colony," students will have to research the meanings of unfamiliar words and concepts, thereby meeting the eighth grade reading standard for informational text (CCSS.ELALiteracy.RI.8.4): Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in text, including figurative, connotative, and technical meanings; analyze the impact of specific word choice on meaning and tone, including analogies or allusions to other texts.

Students will tackle difficult vocabulary and concepts. …

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