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Using Primary Documents

in the Secondary Classroom


For any type of primary source—a written document, image, map, chart, graph, audio, and video—secondary teachers should begin by following these steps:

  1. Before assessing the content of a primary source, look at it in a general sense, and ask basic questions. Consider the type of source: “What are we looking at?” For example, for written 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, documentary film, or news report?
  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, 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 for a map or chart?
  3. Attempt to identify pertinent information such as the creator of the document. Break down the document by asking “Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How?”
  4. If needed, rephrase the document into plain language. Students should speculate for whom and why it was created. Help students understand the document in a historical context.



Prepared by
Angela D. Stewart, MA
Archivist, Margaret Walker Center
Jackson State University