Core Strategies for Working with Primary Sources: The Basics

Since the Teaching with the Library of Congress blog launched in 2011, we’ve published more than 900 posts covering a wide range of topics and suggesting various strategies for deepening student engagement and learning. This is the first of a series of posts revisiting some of our favorite strategies; we invite you to read along and share some of your own.

Today we start with some basics: What is a primary source? What might a teacher think about when selecting primary sources and structuring inquiry-driven learning experiences? But before delving into any of those concepts, view this short video hear what three teachers from PS153 – the Helen Keller School in the Bronx – say about the impact teaching with primary sources had  on how they teach in their elementary school.

What is a primary source?

The 2011 post “What makes a primary source a primary source?” sparked a lively conversation in the blog’s comments section–one that has continued to the present day, with a comment added as recently as July 2019. Reading these comments as a conversation among colleagues adds depth and complexity to the post. Readers wondered whether particular items might be considered a primary source, including oral histories recorded years after the actual events happened; primary sources included in textbooks; and even tree stumps. Comments also reflect teachers’ struggles to help students understand these concepts; they share successful strategies and identify segments of the post that particularly resonate with them. Take a look and add your thoughts to the conversation!

This short video also defines primary sources and explores the value of teaching with primary sources.

Selecting primary sources

Whether you start from a curated primary source set or search the collections, selecting primary sources to best meet student needs is an essential step toward success. Selections need to account for both the needs of the students and when and how items will be used to meet instructional goals. This blog has published a number of posts on considerations for selecting primary sources, including these and many more:

Inquiry learning

Of course, selecting primary sources is only one step. Another is deciding how to structure learning. Unlike secondary sources, primary sources require learners to construct knowledge by sifting and comparing bits of information that may contradict one another. The Using Primary Sources section of the Teachers page suggests one structure for helping students analyze primary sources and develop higher order thinking skills. Here’s past president of the American Library Association Barbara Stripling’s reflection on the intertwined relationship between primary sources and inquiry.

Watch this space for future posts looking at how to use the primary source analysis tool and teachers guides! In the meantime, share your best practices and successes in teaching with primary sources.