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Core Strategies for Working with Primary Sources: Primary Source Analysis

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Millions of powerful teaching and learning tools are available to everyone for free online, wherever they may be: primary sources from the digital collections of the Library of Congress. By their very nature, primary sources, these raw materials of history, encourage exploration and stimulate critical thinking and analysis. (By the way, if you’re just getting started with primary sources, the Library’s Free to Use and Reuse sets are a great place to find some amazing items.)

This post will focus on strategies and tools for analyzing primary sources, using highlights from past blog posts. (Stop by our previous blog post in this series, Core Strategies for Working with Primary Sources: The Basics for a quick introduction.)

Pair of students use a Primary Source Analysis Tool to analyze a document The Library’s set of Teacher’s Guides and Analysis Tools was designed to support teachers and learners as they investigate primary sources. A commenter on a previous post notes that “the analysis tool helps focus their [students’] observation skills, enhances their analysis, and promotes their inquiry.”

In analyzing primary sources, students move between four distinct phases. The process isn’t linear–students can go back and forth between concrete observations and facts to questioning and making inferences about the materials. The Library’s Primary Source Analysis Tool: Helping K-12 Students Start Analyzing Primary Sources offers concrete tips from a teacher about teaching with the primary source analysis tool, and Selecting Questions to Increase Student Engagement explores format-specific teacher’s guides.

Here are some tips for supporting students at each stage of the process.


In this phase of analysis, students identify and note details about the item either by careful listening, close reading, or close observation.

Previous posts from this blog offer many tips for stimulating observation. Here are a few starting places:


In this phase of analysis, “students interpret what they see or hear (observations), consider what they already know (prior knowledge), and make inferences” (Using the “Reflect” Column to Develop Critical Thinking).

Learners of all ages often leap to reflections before fully observing the item. Teachers can slow them down with questions like “What makes you say that?” that help the learner identify and express evidence for the inference (some teachers prefer “hypothesis”).


In this phase of analysis, learners list questions prompted by an observation or a reflection about the primary source.

Encouraging students to ask questions fosters their curiosity and authentic learning. Forming Meaningful Questions explains the value of and offers tips for using the “Question” column, including ideas on responses that will deepen student thinking and learning.

Further Investigation

In this phase of analysis, students identify questions for further research and how they might find information to form answers.

What’s Next? Further Investigation offers practical ideas from 2011-13 Teacher in Residence Earnestine Sweeting about what further investigation might look like in a classroom. One approach she suggests is to allow time for students to examine questions from a completed primary source analysis tool, asking “What questions intrigue you the most?” and then brainstorm in small groups to identify primary and secondary sources.

In Evaluating Sources and Using Evidence 2013-15 Teacher in Residence Rebecca Newland outlines processes for guiding students to evaluate sources and gather evidence.

Please share your top strategies for supporting students as they analyze primary sources and construct knowledge!

Comments (2)

  1. Great Blog!

  2. Well said, Cheryl! I think that it’s more important than ever to just discuss these basic building blocks that will lead to higher order thinking, which could then apply to any content area or learning activity!

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