Reviewing Primary Sources for Literacy Instruction

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  • 0:00 Literacy
  • 0:52 Primary Sources
  • 2:49 Document Criteria
  • 6:10 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Handling primary sources is an important skill for students to develop. But how can teachers choose which primary sources to use? Watch this video to learn more about primary sources, including their benefits and how to evaluate them.


Chase is a middle-school literacy teacher and he has given his students an assignment to write and perform a speech about a historical period. Literacy includes reading, writing, speaking and listening skills. When Chase assigns his students to write and give a speech, he's hitting on all four of these skills. They have to read to do research, write the speech, engage in public speaking and listen to their classmates give speeches. All in all, it's a good assignment.

Chase is trying to support his students by providing lots of good resources for them to use during research, but he's not sure if he's choosing the best sources possible. How can he be sure? To help Chase out, let's look at one type of resources Chase's students might use, primary sources, and how to evaluate them for classroom use.

Primary Sources

Chase's students are preparing their speeches, and he's trying to make sure that they have the best resources possible. He's provided them with history textbooks, biographies and books, but he thinks that there might be something else out there for his students. Primary sources are documents written by a witness to an event. In this case, a witness isn't the same as a witness in a court case, but it is someone who is alive and writing when the event occurred.

For example, someone alive when President Kennedy was assassinated might have written about what the country was like in the days following the shooting. That would be a primary source, even though it wasn't about the assassination itself, but the country's reaction. Examples of primary sources include things like diaries, legal documents, speeches, letters, news films and other resources from the time of the event being studied.

You might be wondering why Chase should include primary sources in his classroom. After all, his students already have textbooks and other nonfiction books written after the events they are speaking about. So why use primary sources too? There are several benefits to primary sources. For example, primary sources can give a close-up view of an event, as they are written right then and there.

In addition, they can help students develop critical thinking skills, as the students have to think about the position of the writer. Take an article about how many United States citizens believe that owning automatic weapons is an important civil liberty. If it was written by someone who owns a gun company, it might have a bias. On the other hand, the same article written by someone with no stake in the argument either way could be less biased.

Finally, primary sources are valuable because they allow readers to consider different points of view. Whereas a textbook might be written mostly from one point of view, primary sources allow students to see the same events written by marginalized people, such as minority races or genders.

Document Criteria

Okay, Chase believes he should include some primary sources in his classroom for his students, but he knows that not all primary sources are created equal. He wants to choose the best ones, but how? There are certain questions that Chase can use when evaluating a primary source for his literacy classroom. They include:

1. Does it support the curriculum?

The first question that he will want to ask is if it offers the type of information that the students need. Having a primary source just to have it doesn't do anyone any good. For example, if a student is doing a speech on D-Day, and Chase gives the student a newsreel from 1944 that has nothing to do with D-Day, it's not very helpful. Likewise, if a student is doing a speech on field slaves in the American South, and Chase offers her a diary by a plantation owner's daughter who had limited contact with slaves, it wouldn't be very helpful. Instead, Chase will want to make sure that the sources he uses are directly tied into the curriculum.

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