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Deciphering History: Introducing Students to Primary Source Analysis

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This post is by Matthew Poth, 2017-18 Library of Congress Teacher in Residence.

A frustration early in my teaching career was getting students to interact critically with primary sources. After many lackluster attempts, I determined to seek a solution. Through trial and error with different approaches, I found the most success when teaching students a step-by-step approach to critical analysis. It’s important to teach each skill and give students the tools to master it.

I first select objects that will help students move past their first judgment, look closely, and ask questions about the object. The object needs to offer several different layers for analysis. It is hard to teach students to dig beyond the obvious when there isn’t a lot to look at. The item also has to be interesting. Once I have selected an item, I give students just enough information to get started but don’t over share with them.

For example, when learning about the Renaissance, I enjoy showing students “The Knight, Death, and the Devil,” by Albrecht Dürer because it exposes them to a darker side of Renaissance art than works they normally get to see in classrooms, like da Vinci’s Last Supper or Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel.

The Knight, Death, and the Devil. Albrecht Dürer, 1513

The last supper. La ultima sena. Leonardo da Vinci. Lithograph by N. Currier

When students first engage with this image, I encourage them to investigate it on their own for several minutes and make a list of what they see. I introduce a scripted response: “I see… and I think it means….” to help them analyze the image in addition to looking at it. Asking them to explain what they think it means supports inquiry and builds discussion. After they have a chance to digest the image, I ask them to share quietly with a partner for a minute each and cross off the things mentioned by their partner. When the class seems ready, volunteers tell the class what is left on their list. To deepen discussion and analysis, I invite students to explain further with guiding questions like “Why do you think that was included?” or “What else in the image would support that?” Check out the set of Teacher’s Guides for more questions to help deepen thinking and analysis of a variety of primary source formats.

As students start to master this skill, I challenge them with more complex and in-depth analysis. As students hone their skills, I provide them with more information on a particular item and ask them to work through the same process discussed above to teach them about to read for context clues and bias. It would also be possible to ask students to build a narrative or story around this image using other historical details which would compel them to further investigate the time period.

What approaches do you find useful when introducing primary sources to your students?


  1. I feel your pain! Everytime we do a program with primary sources the students, regardless of their age, look at the primary source and say “I don’t know the answer” or “I don’t understand.” They want to give up immediately because they have never been taught to LOOK, only to fill in a bubble. Once they begin to LOOK, then the entire dynamic changes!

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