Activities for teaching students about primary sources

These activities will help students develop some of the skills needed to critically think about primary source material.

Primary Sources in Our Lives

Having students identify the source from which they get their information is a major literacy skill in conducting research. They need to understand the significance of primary sources. Below are a few activities that can be done to help them identify the importance of using primary source material.

Activity: Whisper Down the Valley
This child's game, already done in many classrooms, helps students understand that the further away from the original you get, the less likely the information is to be accurate. For those not familiar with the game, the teacher or a student whispers a brief story to a person in their group. That person whispers the story they heard to the next person, etc. The last person relays the story to the class as they heard it. Tip - keep it short. You can make the point with only 5 students.

Activity: What is in our school?
Most school libraries keep newspapers, yearbooks, and other school artifacts. Gather these together to give students an idea of the history of their school and community.

Activity: Family Stories
Most students have an older family member or friend they can interview about something that occurred in their lifetime. This activity is a great way for students to understand the difference between primary and secondary sources.

Begin by having students brainstorm questions they might ask the person. Modeling an interview of someone could be helpful as students tend to ask basic questions and do not always get to the in-depth ones.

Once questions are created, the students interview the family member and record their findings. You can have them present their results in any number of ways.

Things to note:
  • If a student is interviewing a person directly, it is a primary source. If they are interviewing a person talking about another person that is a secondary sources. Example: They talk to Aunt Joan about her time in the Army - Primary source. They talk to Uncle Joe about Aunt Joan's time in the Army - Secondary source.
  • If you have access to a site on which students can share information (google docs, evernote, etc.) it can help streamline the process and allow the teacher to check in and comment on their progress.
  • This is a great activity to give students choice in how they will present their findings.
  • Set deadlines for each section.

Here are some examples of final products done by grade three students. Note, the page contains videos from YouTube and/or Vimeo which may be blocked by some school networks.

Asking Questions

Use primary sources to increase student curiosity. Below are several documents about which students can ask questions. There are no right/wrong answers. It is all about their coming up with questions. Below is a teacher's guide and a blank graphic organizer that might help with these activities.
(teacher's guide)

(blank organizer)

Activity: This is set up as a powerpoint presentation you can show to the entire class or print the slides to have students work in groups. Each slide should generate lots of questions. The final slide has the location on the Library of Congress site. Each location will give a brief description of what is on the slide.

Activity: Similar to the activity above, this is a group of slides. Unlike the activity above, these slides all have something in common. They were all items found in Lincoln's pockets on the night of his assassination. This activity is part of the Professional Development Activities created by the Library of Congress.
(full plan)

(slides of items only)

Compare and Contrast

Students can make a connection to history by being able to understand what life was like during the time being studied. One of the things you can do is have them compare and contrast what they see a photograph to their lives today. Below are a few activities that make use of a Venn Diagram to do this.



Multiple Perspective (Point of View)

It is important that students recognize that even if someone witnessed an event, they are still going to relay the specifics of that event from their point of view. It is important that students understand that primary sources can be slanted.

Activity: Ask the student to come up with three questions about a family event. Examples would be a family vacation, special meal, holiday, etc. Have the student ask the questions to at least two family members. Compare the answers and discuss why each family member may have answered differently
Adding to this activity, if possible, have a third person questioned who was not in attendance at the event but heard about it. See if their responses change.

This activity could be done with a school event such as an assembly or sporting event.

Activity: Gather information about the same event from a variety of sources. You may/may not find multiple perspectives.


It is especially important in this day and age for student to understand that information never goes away. Therefore, some of the things being reported on the web may be found to be totally inaccurate.

Activity: Take a current event that is being reported in the news. Note that some of the information that unfolds might not be accurate but that this information is still recorded. Example: Boston Bombings - Initially the media reported that a bomb had gone off in the Kennedy Library. This was found to be completely false. This website is a great example that could be used to discuss this with students.

Explaining Their Thinking

The following activities are designed to give students practice in justifying their thinking. In some of the activities, there is no wrong or right answer. What you will look for is the reasoning behind their thinking.

In this activity, students will organize five Coke ads by their date in history. For younger students, you can have them just organize the photos. For older students, you could have them either match up the dates you give them or have them decide in what decade they believe the ad appeared.

Download this document, make copies, cut apart the sections:

If you would like larger versions of each picture, download the zip file:

Not Just History

It is important that students realize that primary sources are not just for social studies. You should use the term in other subject areas. Here are some examples: