Introducing Your Students to Primary Source Documents

For English Language Arts (ELA), social studies, and even science teachers, primary source documents are a staple of classroom instruction. From historical speeches to song lyrics, primary sources have the ability to bring deeper meaning to a lesson. In addition, primary source documents often appear on high-stakes standardized tests, meaning that all students should know how to analyze them.

Though full of possibility, primary source documents come with their own set of challenges. Unlike the textbook, they might be at a higher reading level than to what your students are accustomed to. After all, the people who wrote these documents never guessed that their words would one day be used in the classroom.

In this article, I’ll take you through two adaptable mini-lessons. The first centers on text-based primary sources. The second centers on image-based primary sources.  But first…

Some Ground Rules

Learning how to interpret primary source documents is a skill like any other. Here are some essentials to remember if you should adapt either of my mini-lessons:

  • Start SMALL, as in short documents.
  • Give students PLENTY of background information before they start reading.
  • Make sure the students know WHY they are reading a primary source document. If they don't know why they’re likely to give up if the document is too difficult.

Now that we have that out of the way, on to the good stuff!

The Primary Source Document (Text) Mini-Lesson

Audience: High School Students

Best for: ELA, History, & Science

My Mini-Lesson’s Title: Mr. B’s Big Bag O’ Constitutions

Lesson’s Objective: Introduce students to how constitutions affect people’s personal and political freedoms.

Primary Source Documents: Snippets of constitutions from throughout history. Names of countries or other giveaways are REDACTED.

Introduction: Five-minute lecture on how all nations have different levels of political and social freedom. Some countries are very free in both ways (Sweden), some are a mix (Russia), and some are not free in both ways (North Korea). By reading a constitution snippet, students will have to figure out just how politically and socially free that country is/was.

Activity: The activity lasts 15-20 minutes. Students grab a constitution snippet from Mr. B’s Big Bag O’ Constitutions (a paper lunch bag). Students read the snippet. On the back, they write how politically and socially free they think the country is/was. Finally, they tape the snippet to the board, where I have drawn an X/Y axis showing the range of political and social freedoms. The students present their ideas before I reveal if they were right or not. Some constitutions perfectly reflect their nations, while others describe something very different from reality.

Reflection: Class discussion (or writing exercise) on the following prompt: “Today we discovered that constitutions do not always protect people’s personal and political freedoms. What does this reality teach us about the power of a constitution over its government/nation?” (Can be used as an ‘exit slip’ activity.)

The Primary Source Document (Pictures) Mini-Lesson

Audience: Middle School Students

Best for: History or Science (Also a great idea for art teachers )

My Mini-Lesson’s Title: Picture Guessing

Lesson’s Objective: To introduce students to primary source documents, in this case, historical photographs/paintings/political cartoons etc.  

Primary Source Documents: Pictures from used history textbooks taped to one side of a 4”x 6” card. On the back is the accompanying text, also taped. (NOTE: If you find the right used bookstore, you can buy an armful of these out-of-date textbooks for next to nothing.)

Introduction: Explain that the Picture Guessing activity will introduce students to the unit that the class will explore in the following weeks.  

Activity: Each student receives an image face up. The activity has the following steps.

  • Two Minutes: Students examine the picture. They write a 2-3 sentence prediction of what the picture shows.
  • Two Minutes: Student read the back of the card. In their own words, they write what is actually going on in the picture.
  • Two Minutes: Students reexamine the picture for extra details. They write a 2-3 sentence reflection.
  • Repeat Three Times with New Images
  • Ten Minutes: Class discussion on the images. Which images surprised students? Do they still have questions about what they saw?

Reflection: Students write a paragraph-long prediction about what they will encounter in the coming unit. They end with a question: something they want to find out during the unit. (Can be used as an ‘exit slip’ activity.).

Final Thoughts

Whether you want to try a Big Bag O’ [Insert Type of Document Here] or Picture Guessing, introducing your students to primary source documents will take experimentation. Your students may take to some kinds of activities, but not others. If you need extra guidance, using the wisdom of your fellow teachers is a great idea.

Thomas Broderick lives in Northern California. A former English & social studies teacher, Thomas now works as a freelance writer. You can contact Thomas through his website,

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