Primary Sources: How to Integrate Disciplinary Literacy into Social Studies

Dr. Natalie Saaris
December 7, 2017

There are several reasons for social studies teachers to integrate disciplinary literacy into their curriculum:

  • Increase the rigor of content to reflect the reading students will encounter in college and beyond
  • Deepen understanding of topics that students are studying in their social studies courses
  • Demonstrate the type of thinking and reading processes that generate knowledge in the field
  • Help students become critical thinkers who question the source and bias of information they encounter

The best way to integrate disciplinary historical literacy is through the use of primary sources: these can take the form of transcripts of speeches, letters, political cartoons, editorials, maps, legislative documents, or firsthand accounts of historical events. A text that tries to interpret these primary sources, such as a textbook or biography, does not qualify as a primary source.

But how can teachers effectively integrate primary sources into their instruction, where can they find these texts, and what questions should they ask to help students think like historians? Read our guide below to find out:

1. Use primary sources to deepen understanding of what you already teach

Instead of doing an isolated unit on primary source materials, regularly ask students to investigate a primary source document that aligns to the content you already teach. For instance, if students are studying the American Revolution, have them read The Declaration of Independence. If they are investigating the Crusades, have them look at one of these firsthand accounts presented by Fordham University.

The benefit of doing a deep-dive into one of these primary sources is that it offers students an opportunity to do the work that historians so often engage in: examining first-hand accounts, assessing their validity and the bias of their authors, situating these documents within their existing understanding of the period, and drawing conclusions from the documents that advance their understanding. Students will also be better prepared for these advanced critical thinking tasks once they have broad content knowledge about the period: seeing one of these documents in isolation creates a problem in that the students does not have the requisite schemas in place to make sense of the document. Integrating primary source documents within the existing curriculum thus better prepares students for the rigor of historical disciplinary reading and deepens their understanding of what they’ve learned.

2. Find texts from reputable online resources

The challenge for many teachers is finding these primary source documents. Librarians are perhaps the best resource to find these texts because they are aware of databases and content licenses that your school has access to. Many schools subscribe to online collections of primary source documents that are easy to access and search. Actively Learn has an assortment of individual primary sources and Primary Source sets that build students’ understanding of a topic through sequenced reading so that they can ultimately analyze a primary source document. Other great resources include the National Archive database and the Avalon Project, a collection of documents in law, history, and diplomacy hosted by Yale Law School.

3. Ask questions to inspire students to think like historians

Once you have these documents in hand, you might wonder what sorts of questions to ask your students and what type of thinking to encourage as they analyze these documents. Here is our helpful infographic to capture the five key historical thinking moves:

How to use primary sources to help social studies students read like a historian
  1. What is the author’s bias? This questions alerts students that every author has an identity and a unique way of viewing the world. A woman leading her local suffrage movement is going to have a very different attitude toward women’s societal roles than someone from a more conservative, traditional background who believes that women should stay in the home and away from public life. Bringing that identity to the forefront helps to contextualize the information and avoid the mistake of treating a document as the irrefutable reflection of the period. Historians understand that documents are written by human beings who have interests and agendas that they hope to promote.
  2. Who is the audience? The message of the text has an intended audience, whether it be the recipient of a letter, a group of soldiers, or the public at large. The Gettysburg Address, for instance, is more insightful if students understand that Abraham Lincoln is delivering his speech to an audience that is wondering whether the carnage of the bloodiest battle of the Civil War was worth the cost. Having a good sense of who the audience is also helps students establish the answer to the next question:
  3. What is the author trying to tell the audience? Students should know if the author is trying to inspire a policy decision, boost morale, critique a social trend, or purely inform someone of an event. This is also a great question to gauge whether students have understood the main point of the text and can deduce its purpose. For example, in Letters from a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King, Jr. is justifying the need for direct action (protests) in the hopes of changing the minds of his critics. This basic purpose provides the framework for the text and helps to make sense of the author’s arguments.
  4. What does the text tell me about the time period? This is a tricky question, because we want to prevent students from assuming that any given text qualifies as the absolutely true account of a historical event. It would be presumptuous to assume that the view of one individual necessarily reflects that of a greater group. Does Susan B. Anthony’s After Being Convicted of Voting encapsulate the views of all women during this time, or merely one highly influential woman? What details does it provide about the period (e.g. women could be arrested for voting, the parallels between the fight for racial equality and that of women’s suffragists?) Students might need guidance in drawing conclusions that are neither too broad nor too trivial (e.g. that women wore petticoats at the time.)
  5. How does this text relate to other evidence? Historians situate texts in relation to what they already know. Does the text corroborate what the historian already knows, does it present an alternative narrative, or does it surface new details that merit further investigation? A dissenting voice that provides a contrasting perspective to the established narrative can inform historians (or students) that not everyone supported a particular decision or movement. A text that exemplifies a trend in the historical narrative (for example, a vitriolic editorial targeting a corrupt politician during the Progressive Era) could serve as evidence of that period’s journalistic zeitgeist. Students who relate the primary source to other evidence not only demonstrate the same disciplinary thinking as experts in the field, they also engage in the important habit of activating their prior background knowledge and connecting ideas. This habit of thought will enable them to understand and retain more of what they learn in social studies, and hopefully lead them to enjoy the process of learning more deeply.


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