Selecting Primary Sources, Part I: Knowing your Students

This blog post is the first in a series that will discuss characteristics to consider when selecting primary sources to use with your students.

Reynolds's political map of the United States. William C. Reynolds. New York: c1856.

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.

Unidentified young soldier next to unidentified young girl standing on chair; probably siblings, between 1861 and 1865.

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.

Thaddeus S. C. Lowe to Abraham Lincoln, Sunday, June 16, 1861 (Telegram from balloon).

  • 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.

9 Comments

  1. Edgar Velázquez
    July 12, 2011 at 9:21 pm

    Would select the photo of the unknown soldier as it allows me to give a human face to issue and thus develop the theme inciting the curiosity to delve into the facts and clues that determine the structure and development of the subject.

    Homeschool 6 Grade

  2. Victor_Anderson
    July 12, 2011 at 10:00 pm

    I find the staff (especially those at the Teacher Institute) of the Library of Congress extremely knowledgeable, friendly and willing to help me in my pursuit of learning more about primary resources. This blog is just one of the many ways they share their immense experience with these invaluable resources. THANK YOU!!

  3. Kathleen Ferenz
    July 13, 2011 at 9:09 am

    We really enjoyed working through this activity also this summer in our institute. I think that this will really engage my students.

  4. Rich Cairn
    July 13, 2011 at 9:55 am

    Very basic, simple, and important thoughts. – Thanks

  5. Laura Wakefield
    July 13, 2011 at 10:38 am

    Each of these primary sources could be used with students. It would depend on what you wanted students to learn. At first look, a teacher might think her students could not learn from the telegram from a balloon because it is in cursive that some elementary students have not learned (and some high school students increasingly are unable to read) but providing a printed text can overcome that obstacle for the high school student and a tech savvy teacher could create an avatar that reads the text to the student at the click of a mouse. It has the dual intrigue of being about the early use of balloons (flight) in wartime and being written to Abraham Lincoln. What might that view have looked like? What was Lincoln’s response? Some of the many questions this could generate. The 1856 map might seem daunting to some at first because it is so large and detailed but how many lessons could it provide about slavery, government, politics and geography for middle and high school students. An elementary student might just be fascinated to see what landmarks and locations it shows about their state. The Ambrotype picture can be used to learn about topics ranging from early methods of photography and visual literacy to life during the Civil War. Decide what you want students to learn from the primary source and give them the tools to explore. The fun begins when they discover more than you (the teacher) understand about it.

  6. Lorissa Boxer
    July 13, 2011 at 7:04 pm

    I teach third grade in California. The comparative map of free and slave states is particularly useful for my class because we study about the lives of those who took risks to secure our freedoms. The students read about Biddy Mason, a slave who was brought to Los Angeles. The map illustrates how and why she was able to legally gain her freedom.

  7. Bonnie914
    August 9, 2011 at 8:40 pm

    I teach gifted and AP 8th grade US History in Florida and I would definitely use the map partly because I was a part of the April 29th workshop and the mapping activity was so great. Our students come back tomorrow so the criteria before searching for documents is an excellent area for me to consider as I meet my new students. One thing to consider is that students change throughout the year. I used the civil war era maps with my 8th graders in May and they learned a lot and loved the activity. My new students will be much younger and probably have less experience so selecting the primary sources that fit their needs will be crucial.
    Incidentally, I will be presenting what I learned from my LOC workshop later this month with both elementary and middle school teachers. I plan to include this post with my presentation. Thank you, Sara. You always have great ideas that span multiple age groups.

  8. KKB
    September 24, 2014 at 8:50 am

    I teach 8th grade Pre-AP students, 8th grade regular ed and special ed students. I think that all could benefit from the letter and the political map. Decoding cursive handwriting is great practice for all ability levels; these activities level the playing field.

  9. Monica Dugan
    September 28, 2014 at 6:12 pm

    I would select the handwritten text from Lowe to Lincoln from the balloon. I teach seventh grade science and teach all ability levels. Although the cursive and writing would not necessarily be easily accessible to all students at first glance, the topic of the note would not be my focus.
    I would use this source as an attention grabber and use it to connect curricular areas. Since I teach about hot air and physics, I would integrate this into my teachings on the history of the use of such mechanics for transport and then draw students attention by showing them that this is the actual handwriting of a person from 1861. I would connect that with the years of Lincoln’s presidency.
    Students, in my experience, connect on a much deeper level, when they can see the real production from a real person, not just the translated typed text in a text book or a piece of paper.

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