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Primary Sources and Elementary Students

By Gail Petri

Can teaching with primary sources like photographs, manuscripts, maps, and historic sheet music engage young learners? Skeptics might argue: “Historical materials are boring… There is too much text… The vocabulary is difficult… Students won’t understand the history.” However, current research, teacher testimonials, and personal experience indicate that primary sources can bring history alive for elementary students.

Nearly all state standards acknowledge the importance of teaching with primary sources. Exposure to these raw materials can spark students’ imaginations and support inquiry, historical thinking, and constructive learning. Photographs, prints, and movies provide detailed visual images. Authentic documents such as newspapers, journals, advertisements, diaries, and letters provide vivid images. Music and recorded oral histories supply an auditory framework to add depth to historical and cultural understanding.

Using Primary Sources with K-5 Students

As elementary teachers know from experience, younger students are characteristically active, curious, and concrete learners. They are in various stages of developing their language and reasoning skills, teamwork, and fine motor abilities. Students in grades K-5 need to be able to connect history about people, places, or events to their own experiences. Primary sources offer unique opportunities for personalizing the past.

Teaching younger students with primary sources requires careful planning. Begin by identifying the learning goal or essential question of the activity. Depending on the topic, there are many primary sources available online. It is critical, however, to select primary sources that are accessible and appropriate for the students’ grade level. Elementary teacher Sara Suiter, Library of Congress 2010 Teacher-in-Residence, recommends selecting primary sources with some or all of these characteristics:

  • a date of creation or publication is easily identifiable;
  • the original format is evident (such as a page from a book, poster, or newspaper article);
  • the author’s name is on the document;
  • handwriting or typography is legible and decodable;
  • the content of the primary source can be easily placed in a time period familiar to the students; and,
  • the facsimile of the primary source is clear and has a high resolution.

Select one or more primary sources. Consider how to structure a primary source-based activity that will engage students, prompt them to think critically, and help them construct new knowledge. Students should feel that they are in charge of the historical investigation and responsible for their own theories and conclusions. The following chart illustrates examples of types of primary sources and strategies for designing grade-level appropriate activities.

Grade Level Primary Sources Strategies
  • Introduce artifacts, photographs, posters, oral history recordings, song recordings, and other primary sources without text
Connect primary sources to self:
  • make observations and basic comparisons; and,
  • categorize several sources
  • Introduce diary entries, drawings, simple maps, and other primary sources with limited text, such as tickets, receipts, menus, and catalogs
Expand primary source connections to family:
  • observe/analyze/compare primary sources;
  • diagram similarities and differences; and,
  • distinguish fact from fiction
  • Introduce newspapers, broadsides, documents, letters, charts and other primary sources with larger amounts of text; and,
  • include primary sources with multiple viewpoints
Expand primary source connections to community and local region:
  • invite students to discern point of view and bias;
  • conduct more in-depth analysis
  • Introduce more complex historical documents (e.g., the Declaration of Independence), different types of maps; and,
  • include primary sources in multiple formats on the same topic
Expand primary source connections to nation:
  • compare drafts with final versions;
  • compare multiple points of view and bias; and,
  • synthesize learning and construct new knowledge

Consider these teacher-tested suggestions for introducing primary sources into the daily classroom routine. For grades K-2, encourage students to place themselves in an image and imagine what they see, hear, feel, and touch. Or, have students reenact a photograph using the tableau strategy. For grades 3-5, challenge students to create a timeline using primary sources or create found poetry — using language from primary source texts on a variety of subjects to retell the historical content in poetic form.

Such introductory activities help teachers and younger students become more comfortable with connecting to and analyzing primary sources. But, this is only the beginning. The possibilities are endless for helping students in elementary grades delve more deeply into learning with primary sources.

Getting Started Using Library of Congress Primary Sources

With limited time, how can elementary teachers begin exploring possibilities for primary source-based learning? The Library of Congress Web site offers millions of digitized primary sources. There are many ready-to-use classroom materials on the Library of Congress’ Teachers Page, including primary source sets and lesson plans, as well as additional educational resources throughout the Web site.

Explore the Teachers Page for ready-to-use teaching materials. Primary source sets offer a selection of resources on specific topics. These sets are available as easy-to-print PDFs and are accompanied by historical context and a primary source analysis tool.

There are many ways to use a primary source set. For example, a lower grades’ teacher may want to select a single image from the Thanksgiving primary source set. She may use The First Thanksgiving 1621 to prompt students to think about their own Thanksgiving traditions and make basic comparisons between past and present.

An upper elementary teacher may select multiple sources from this same set. Images of the landing at Plymouth in 1620, meetings with American Indians, and the first Thanksgiving can help students consider the artistic vision in contrast to the reality of the actual events. Teachers can select questions from the teacher’s guide to Analyzing Primary Sources. These questions will help students record their investigations with the Primary Source Analysis Tool.

Lesson plans available on the Teachers Page provide more detailed instructional procedures and resources. Among those specifically geared for K-5 students are History Firsthand, Suffrage Strategies: Voices for Votes, and Marco Paul's Travels on the Erie Canal: An Educational Voyage. Additionally, many elementary teachers adapt lesson plans originally written for older students.

Other sections of the Library’s Web site offer materials appropriate for elementary students. Visit America’s Library for elementary level historical vignettes featuring primary sources. Navigate to Meet Amazing Americans for biographical entries.

Jump Back in Time highlights specific events throughout American history. On this page, have students select their birthday. Each date highlights two or three primary sources with brief textual explanations of a historic event that happened on that day. For example, December 1 features Rosa Parks’ 1955 arrest for civil disobedience. Students can analyze a photograph of Rosa Parks being arrested, a page of sheet music from “We Shall Overcome,” and a newspaper headline from the December 6, Montgomery, Alabama, newspaper.

Close examination of these primary sources combined with guided reading of the factual text provides students with historical context while making this event more relevant. Consider extending this activity by reading a book about Rosa Parks and asking students to develop a list of related topics for further investigation.

Next Steps

Keep it simple and build on your successes. Begin by using one primary source at a time. Explore these specific primary source links and related ideas for prompting student thinking:

Develop a personal collection of primary sources. Work with your school librarian and grade-level teams to share resources. Display materials in the classrooms and halls. Continue exploring Library of Congress online resources. Make using primary sources a daily part of your teaching routine to help your elementary students develop critical thinking and analysis skills.

Gail Petri, a former K-5 Teacher Librarian from the Rochester, New York area and a 2000 Library of Congress American Memory Fellow, has worked as an Educational Resources Specialist for the Library of Congress since 2002. She authored the book, The American Memory Collections: Primary Resources Across the Curriculum Grades 4-6 and several other publications.