This blog post is the first in a series that will discuss characteristics to consider when selecting primary sources to use with your students.
When searching the Library of Congress’ millions of digitized primary sources, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and even off-track. We’ve all experienced it. You come to www.loc.gov with a specific lesson or unit in mind, find a cool photograph and pretty soon you’re clicking through an entire collection that may or may not be on the topic you were initially looking for!
This summer, we’ve incorporated a new activity into our teacher institutes during which participants discuss the characteristics they consider when selecting primary sources to use with their students. Because we host teachers and librarians with varying levels of experience using primary sources in the classroom, we feel the discussions of how to select appropriate, effective primary sources are important.
During our second institute, Raul Almada, a fourth grade teacher from Whittier, California shared how primary sources have impacted student learning in his classroom, “My students are enthusiastic about using primary sources because they give them something tangible to work with that is not just reading in a textbook. In fact, they help level the playing field because any student can use them and give ideas and information because many of these primary sources do not involve reading.”
Raul’s experience highlights just how important it is for teachers to think about their students when selecting primary sources. Primary sources that engage but are also accessible to students will ensure a positive impact on student learning.
Here are some criteria that can help narrow your search before you begin and keep you focused on what will be the most effective primary sources to use with your students.
- Content: Will your students want to look closely, ask questions, and learn more about this particular primary source?
- Age-appropriateness: Is the content suitable for your students? Is it too complex?
- Length: Will the length of the letter, diary entry, or newspaper article affect student comprehension? Is an excerpt more appropriate?
- Readability of text or handwriting: Is text clearly printed and legible? Will cursive handwriting impact your students’ understanding?
- Reading level of students: Will your students be able to decode the text of the primary source?
- Prior knowledge needed (historical; vocabulary): Do outdated terms need to be defined? Will your students understand the content of the primary source?
Take a close look at the primary sources included in this blog post. Which would you choose to use with your students? Why? Don’t forget to let us know the grade level you teach!
Stay tuned. The next post in this series will focus on considering historical context when selecting primary sources.