3 Tools for Teaching with Primary Sources

Earlier this week, our Social Studies R & D (Research and Design) Team met to discuss our philosophy. We had a rich discussion and there were several threads that I hope to follow up on with colleagues. I love hearing their thoughts and learning more about their approaches to teaching, especially social studies. One great discussion was centered around the use of primary sources. Days after the meeting, I’ve been reflecting back to my own teaching practice and what I would hope the teachers on our team would know and use as it relates to showing students how to analyze sources. I hope these tools are useful and spur other ideas.

social studies R & D

Why use primary sources?

  • Learners act as historians, learning to analyze and draw their own conclusions
  • Sources are real, allowing learners to get as close to historical events as possible
  • Sources help students develop inquiry; the ability to formulate meaningful questions
  • Secondary sources are valuable too, though more likely to be biased or subjective
  • They learn that history is always incomplete and open to interpretation

3 Tools for Teaching with Primary Sources

Tool #1: The Future Coin


Give every learner a penny. Ask them to imagine it is 5,000 years in the future and they are archaeologists who have just dug up this coin. The United States of America does not exist 5,000 years in the future and you/they have no prior knowledge or reference for it. Ask learners to individually study the coin and write down anything they notice including any questions that arise. Use the 9 questions in Tool #2 below, especially the last questions, “What does this coin reveal about the society/civilization in which it was produced?”

Learners may determine that the “ancient” American society was monotheistic. And that their God was a man with a beard. They would notice the year 2006 and maybe assume this person was a leader at that time. They might assume the USA was bilingual (English and Latin). Let them come up with their own ideas and you’ll be amazed at the kinds of insights they possess. This same exercise can be done with paintings, speeches, music, etc.

Tool #2: 9 questions for analyzing primary sources

  1. When was it created?
  2. Who wrote/created it?
  3. What was its original purpose?
  4. Who was the intended audience?
  5. What kind of source is it (document, artifact, etc.)?
  6. What feelings does it evoke?
  7. What is the point of view?
  8. Is there any visible bias?
  9. What does it reveal about the civilization/society in which it was created?

Tool #3: Football Point of View (credit to Larry Treadwell)

Compare types of music and types of instruments as primary sources representative of ancient and modern civilizations. Here are samples of ancient Chinese, Celtic, modern top 40 pop, and a showcasing of ancient Irish instruments…



Recommended Resources:

Guidelines for Using Primary Sources in Your Classroom

Four Reads: Learning to Read Primary Documents

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