Help your students think through primary source documents for contextual understanding and to glean information to make informed judgments.

The first few times you ask students to work with primary sources, and whenever you have not worked with primary sources recently, model careful document analysis. Direct students’ attention to the procedures involved and the kinds of questions you ask about the documents. After several instances of modeling, ask students to work as a class to analyze documents, vocalizing the process as they go.

Eventually, students will internalize the procedure and be able to go through these steps on their own every time they encounter a primary source document. Remind students to practice this same careful document analysis for every primary source they see.


For any type of document — a written document, image, map, chart, graph, audio or video — move through the following steps:

  1. Before getting into the content of the document, look at it in a very general sense and ask basic questions. Consider the document’s type: “What kind of document are we looking at?” For example, for textual documents, is it a newspaper, letter, report? For artifacts, what material is this made of? For video, is it a propaganda film, cartoon, training video?
  2. Find unique characteristics of the document (which will vary depending on document type). Note any markings or special qualities. These characteristics will help students understand the document in context. For example: Are there any symbols, letterhead, handwritten versus typed text, stamps, seals, or notations? Is there a background, color, or tone? Are there facial expressions in photographs, or other telling features? Is there narration or special effects? Is there a key?
  3. Attempt to identify the creator and the content of the document. Break down the document by asking “Who, What, Where, When, Why and How?”
  4. Rephrase the document into plain language. Students should determine the content of the document and speculate for whom and why it was created. Help students understand the document in historical context.

Why teach with documents?

When we ask students to work with and learn from primary sources, we transform them into historians. Rather than passively receiving information from a teacher or textbook, students engage in the activities of historians — making sense of the stories, events and ideas of the past through document analysis.

Primary sources motivate students and pique their curiosity about history. Seeing familiar document formats like letters or photographs encourages students, while unique document characteristics capture their attention and prompt them to investigate further. Documents involve students in the process of historical inquiry when they ask questions, discover evidence, and participate in debates over interpretation.

Teaching with documents can engage students. They begin to see connections between past and present. Documents with signatures or notations personalize history. Primary sources give students opportunities to empathize with figures of the past and to understand history from varying perspectives. The varied nature of primary sources also provides students the opportunity to connect their historical understanding to other subject areas like geography or math, to a collective national heritage, and to their modern lives.

Primary sources often inspire students because they provide new avenues for learning about the past. Documents can illustrate abstract concepts or help students make connections between seemingly unrelated information. Students can begin their historical studies through graphical materials that they may be more comfortable with — photographs, maps, and posters.

Through their analysis of a variety of documents, students learn to find multiple perspectives in history. Primary sources guide students to the realization that all accounts of past events are subjective. Following practice with primary sources, students begin to recognize bias and question where historical information comes from. Students learn not only to question the reliability of sources but to reference multiple sources for information while doing historical research.

Primary sources encourage higher order thinking. As historians, students can link documents to see cause and effect relationships, fit historical pieces together to understand a whole story, understand historical events in context by relating primary sources to mathematical data or geographic locations, and assess primary sources as evidence to formulate interpretations about the past.
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