Primary Sources and Literacy
By Mark Newman and Rachel Warach
National College of Education, National-Louis University
Are primary source-based activities, by their very nature, exercises in literacy?
Consider a middle-school teacher who is nearing the end of a unit on immigration. Her students have studied background information on immigrants coming into Ellis Island and have a people, place and time context. Today they are going to watch actual footage from the Library of Congress Web site that shows people arriving on Ellis Island in 1903. In setting up the assignment, the teacher tells her students that they are journalists, assigned to report on Ellis Island and the immigrants. The students are to write the article as if they were there.
The students have done this type of assignment before and know that, as journalists, they must ask themselves "who, what, when, where, how, and why" questions. With the teacher's assistance, the students develop a list of questions to use in reading the film: What do the immigrants in the film look like? What are they are doing? What are their surroundings like? Where does it appear they came from? How did they get to Ellis Island? Why do you think they came to the United States? How do you think they felt as they arrived at Ellis Island?
The questions facilitate the taking of notes while watching the film. Once the film is over, using their background knowledge and the information gleaned from the film, the students use a graphic organizer, a web matrix, to categorize their notes. Next, the student reporters write their on-the-scene accounts.
It is obvious that the above assignment teaches students about immigrants. Obvious, too, is that it does so by using a primary source. But how does it help the students with literacy?
This teacher knows that literacy has three main aspects: reading, thinking, and communicating. Looking at her assignment step by step we see that this class read the film using a series of questions to identify important information. Next, they processed and thought about the information as they organized their information using the graphic organizer and possibly outlines in preparation for writing the stories. Here, too, the questions provided guidance. Lastly, they communicated their thoughts by writing a story from the perspective of "being there" as a newspaper journalist. And voila! Literacy taught by using a primary source.
Would this assignment have been successful had the students not currently been studying immigration? If they did not have a people, place, and time context for reading the film? Would it have worked if they had never done an exercise placing them at the scene of their topic of study as reporters? No. The teacher made sure that the primary source used was appropriate in instructional, situational, and ability-level context. Additionally, this teacher knew the importance of an inquiry model and didn't simply assume that her students knew what to look for in the film. Instead she helped them develop a list of questions to identify important information, to focus their thinking, and to form conclusions.
By using a primary source, the teacher made the topic interesting. As the students "became" journalists, they got a street-level view of immigration that they wouldn't have gotten in a more traditional, textbook-oriented lesson. Without literacy instruction, however, the activity would not have succeeded. The students would not have known how to read the film, nor would they have been able to make sense of it or write their accounts. Literacy is the key to primary source-based instruction. Together, literacy and primary sources help teachers personalize learning, placing students among the people and events they are studying.