Introducing Primary and Secondary Sources in the Elementary Classroom


You are never too young to hold onto a piece of history and discover its connection to your life. Using primary and secondary sources gives students an opportunity to see, touch, and find clues about the history they are learning. These sources bring the past to life in a way that nothing else can.

There are quick easy methods or techniques to use to integrate the evaluation of sources in your classroom even if you are short on time, are not sure where to look, or are worried it would be too challenging to students.

Build Understanding of Primary and Secondary Sources

Brainstorm a definition together. Look at examples to find similarities and differences. Make any changes to your definition based on the discoveries. If your students are ready define and compare secondary sources. Discuss how these sources can be helpful to historians.

Using examples, discuss if all letters, photographs, interviews, etc. are primary sources.

The more students interact with these sources together, while slowly moving toward working independently, the better they will become at evaluating them to catch a glimpse of history in our world today.

Model Your Process

Choose a source that relates to the content you are teaching ensuring students already know some of the historical context. Analyze the source like a historian, noting context clues (author, date, place, audience) and how those impact your understanding of the document. Identify the author’s purpose, questions you wonder, and clues to answers you discover.


Questioning is the Key

Not only do you, the teacher, need good questioning skills, your students need to be developing these skills by asking questions about every source. Give students a mystery to discover which starts with a question. The answer will not always be found in the source, but the question gives students permission to want to know more. A source may be analyzed different depending on what you are looking for based on the question. As a result of practicing questioning, the critical thinking process becomes a natural way of thinking.

A good strategy to begin developing questioning skills in students is I Notice/I Wonder, I See/I Wonder, or I See/I Think/I Wonder. No matter what you call the strategy, it offers students an opportunity to practice observing and wondering about what they see. Check out this Facing History & Ourselves article for the steps of this strategy.

Evaluate the Source in Multiple Ways

Remember what students are looking for in the source will change their perspective and discovery.

  • Analyze for Source and Content: Look for dates, author, and place. For each, ask students: Why does this matter? Why is the significant? What background information do I know about any of these?
  • Look for a Big Meaning: Try to uncover the big ideas of the source. If students have differing opinions on the big idea, discuss their reasons or evidence for their thinking.
  • Uncover the Clues to Hidden or Other Meanings: Look for biases and author credibility to determine additional meanings in the source. Ask what else students see or notice.
  • Evaluate Like a Historian: Take a final evaluation of the source using everything they know at this point. Tie it all together or discover additional questions students are thinking.

Templates can Scaffold the Process for Teachers and Students

Give students practice interpreting and evaluating these sources. Give them questions, like these Teacher’s Guides and Analysis Tool from the Library of Congress or Document Analysis Worksheets from the National Archives for different types of sources.

A simple strategy to practice these skills is using a 5 Ws (who, what, when, where, and why) approach to evaluate their source.

The opportunity is just the beginning. Give students frequent opportunities to interact with primary and secondary sources to increase their critical thinking skills and help them develop a relationship with history.

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Melissa Knowles has worked in education eighteen years. She earned her bachelors’ degree in Elementary Education at the University of South Alabama, a master’s degree in Library Science from University of West Alabama in 2009, and her Educational Specialist degree from University of West Alabama in 2010.  She has earned several technology-related certifications and is currently working on a certification as a technology coach. In her work as a certified trainer for Social Studies School Service, she builds several curriculum maps, develops micro-credentials, and trains educators on using the programs, as well as leads and hosts webinars on various topics.

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