Using Primary Sources to Teach About Our Nation’s Beginning

Primary sources are artifacts, documents, or any other source of information created at the time under study. They provide records of the period of time in which they were created.

They take many formats:

  • manuscripts
  • photographs
  • audio or video recordings
  • journals, diaries, and letters
  • speeches
  • political cartoons
  • newspaper articles
  • advertisements
  • government documents
  • and more!

These valuable resources engage students in a meaningful way, resulting in a deeper understanding of past events. By analyzing primary sources, students gain greater insight into what it was like to live during the period of time in which the materials were created.

Common Core State Standards (CCSS)

Inquiry into primary sources helps students achieve the following standards set forth in the CCSS, which places an emphasis on informational text:

Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources.

Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of the source distinct from prior knowledge or opinions.

Identify key steps in a text’s description of a process related to history/social studies.

Describe how a text presents information.

Identify aspects of a text that reveal an author’s point of view or purpose (e.g., loaded language, inclusion or avoidance of particular facts).

Integrate visual information with other information in print and digital texts.

Distinguish among fact, opinion, and reasoned judgment in a text.

Analyze the relationship between a primary and secondary source on the same topic.

Analyzing the Primary Source

When eliciting important details about the primary source, encourage students to use their prior knowledge of the subject. Suggest that they think about these and other questions to assist in their analysis:

  • What was occurring at the time the source was created?
  • What was the creator’s intent?
  • Based on your prior understanding of the topic, did anything surprise you
  • What techniques did the creator use to put forth his or her point of view
    • Did he or she use humor
    • Did he or she use strong language?
    • Did the creator try to instill fear?
  • What, if any, biases did you detect?

Examination and analysis of primary source materials provide valuable opportunities to use inference and other higher-level critical thinking skills.

Locating Primary Source Materials from America’s Past

There are several websites that provide free primary source materials that would be beneficial for educators. The two best, not surprisingly, are the Library of Congress and the National Archives.

Library of Congress

The Library of Congress website offers helpful information regarding the use of primary sources in the classroom. It also provides access to a variety of materials, many of which are available for your use. Teachers can search by Common Core State Standards of by Individual State Content.

This is the url link to this useful website:

The National Archives

You will find a treasure trove of materials on the National Archives website. The site provides thousands of online primary source documents from the National Archives to bring the past to life as classroom teaching tools.

Also available are research activities designed to help students navigate the National Archives resources and website.

This is the url link to this useful website:

Charters of Freedom

Among the documents available from the National Archives are America’s founding documents: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. These documents, which were vital to the founding and philosophy of the United States of America, are known collectively as the Charters of Freedom.

The Declaration of Independence expresses the ideals on which the nation was founded and states the reasons for separation from Great Britain.

The Constitution defines the framework of the federal government.

The Bill of Rights defines the rights of citizens and the individual states.

This is the url link for these documents:

Using Primary Sources to Teach U.S. HistoryWar to Constitution

Document-Based Activities for the Middle Grades

This book, written by Rebecca Stark and published by Educational Books ’n’ Bingo, provides document-based fusing primary sources from the Pre-Revolutionary era to the ratification of the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

These are just a few of the many primary sources that are addressed in the resource:

  • “Join or Die” Cartoon
  • Protesting the Stamp Act Painting
  • True-born Sons of Liberty Broadside
  • “Repeal of the Stamp Act” Satirical Cartoon
  • Common Sense
  • Declaration of Independence
  • General Washington’s Letter to Lafayette
  • Articles of Confederation
  • Constitution of the United States
  • Bill of Rights

Background information relating to each primary source is provided, making this a comprehensive teaching unit on this period in United States history.

Useful document analysis sheets are also included as are suggested answers and additional background information.

Barbara Peller, AKA Rebecca Stark, Author of Using Primary Sources to Teach U.S. History: War to Constitution, Published by Educational Books ‘n’ Bingo