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Teaching with Primary Sources

by Jennifer Suri

Introduction—Why Teach With Documents?
How to Pick a Document
How to Approach a Document With Your Students
When and How You Might Incorporate Documents Into Your Lessons
Compare and Contrast Points of View
Sample Lesson
More Practice in Comparing Views
Links to Primary Source Documents


Before utilizing a new strategy or resource in my teaching, I try to think about the reasons for my choice, and how my students will benefit. I have always taught using primary source documents but have significantly increased my use of them in the classroom, in homework assignments, and on examinations. I have tried to summarize what I think are the most critical points below.

  1. By reading and analyzing primary source documents, students are able to arrive at their own conclusions based on their understanding of the documents.
    This empowers students as they find themselves in the roles of historians. Indeed, they will often find contradictions between the views expressed in a document and the material they have read in a textbook. This can inspire students to conduct further research into the area they are studying.

  2. Use of primary source documents can enhance student understanding of a historical time period.
    Primary sources provide windows into the daily lives of individuals living in the past. An analysis of documents can reinforce the themes and content learned from the textbook or in class discussion. For example, a student can read that women were considered inferior to men in ancient Mesopotamia, but the concept will have more meaning for them after they have read excerpts from Hammurabi's Code concerning the position of women. The idea comes alive through the legal code of the time. A document could offer some surprises to students as well. Again, in assessing the position of women in Babylonian society, students may find examples in Hammurabi's Code, in which the treatment of women is more equitable than they might expect.


When deciding which documents to use in your lessons, consider the following:

  1. Length of the Document
    If the material is difficult to interpret, using an excerpt may be wise. Be careful in the use of short excerpts. Often, a passage taken out of its context can take on an unintended meaning or lose the impact it had in the original context.

  2. Objectives of the Lesson
    Ask yourself if the document will help achieve your lesson objectives. You may not find the appropriate document for many of the lessons you teach. That's okay! Use primary sources only if the document enhances the lesson and your pedagogical objectives.

  3. Source of the Document
    Be careful to obtain the document from a legitimate source. If you download a source from the Internet, be certain that you are familiar with its origins. There are wonderful resources online, but there are also just as many unreliable and historically inaccurate resources online.


There are several issues to review with students as they approach a document.

  1. Direct students to note the author of the document.
    It is important to consider the viewpoint of the author. For example, when they are reading Spanish accounts of the conquest of the Incas or Aztecs, the accounts will be remarkably different from the Native American eyewitness account presented in The Broken Spears.

  2. Have students identify the type of document they are studying.
    Is it a piece of correspondence? Is it an official governmental decree? Is it a work of fiction? If the document is a work of fiction, you may ask students to consider the tone of the piece and make sure that they understand the function of satire as a literary technique. I recommend creating guiding questions to accompany the document. In this way, you can direct the students to think about issues in the documents that they might otherwise miss.


  1. Classroom Strategies With Short Documents
    Excerpts of fewer than five lines have many advantages for classroom use. Short excerpts can be placed on the chalkboard or on an overhead projector, or they can be read aloud. There are, however, some drawbacks. An excerpt can be misinterpreted when taken out of context. Also, student retention may not be as great if they have not spent time mulling over a longer passage.
    1. Use short documents to begin and motivate class discussion.
      For example, when discussing the geography of the Nile Valley, begin with an excerpt from the Greek historian Herodotus, "Egypt is wholly the gift of the Nile."
      • Have this quotation on the board as students enter your classroom.
      • Give the students about three minutes to write down what they think Herodotus meant and if they agree with him.
      • Have a map of the Nile Valley on the board, as well.
      • After three minutes, ask, "What did Herodotus mean?" or "Was Egypt the gift of the Nile?"
        (Possible answer: Herodotus meant that without the water from the Nile, farming and permanent settlement would not have been possible.)
      • Ask students about the role geography has played in the development of their hometown. This could lead to a discussion of the importance of geography in the development of early civilization and, specifically, its role in ancient Egypt.
        (Try to relate the material back to the student's own experience by asking about the role geography has played in the development of his or her hometown. One teacher I observed asked students, "The United States is the gift of _______" and asked students to fill in the blank. The students found this challenging and fun.)

    2. Use an excerpt to reinforce ideas taught in the body of a lesson.
      For example, in a lesson on Buddhism, after you have discussed and outlined on the board the major tenets of this belief system, write the following excerpt from the Buddhist text Tripitaka, on the board: "Overcome anger with kindness, evil with goodness, meanness with generosity, and lying with truth."

      Ask students any of the following questions:
      • How does this passage reflect the philosophy of Buddhism?
        (Possible responses: Buddhism taught followers to be kind to all living things and think pure thoughts, which will lead to righteous actions.)
      • How does this reflect the ideas of the Eightfold Path?
        (Possible answer: The Eightfold Path is a plan of action for those seeking enlightenment. It asks that one have the right knowledge, right purpose, right action, right living, right speech, right mindfulness, right effort, and so on. The passage from the Tripitaka is an illustration of the Eightfold Path. Overcoming anger with kindness is an example of right action and right purpose.)

  2. Classroom Strategies With Long Documents
    The use of longer documents, presented in their entirety, can allow for greater understanding of the piece. Naturally, this can be time consuming, especially if you plan to have students read the document entirely in class, so plan accordingly.

    To reinforce an important concept, distribute a passage to read together as a class. Several suggested approaches are listed below:
    1. Distribute the passage to the entire class. Have students read silently, and then ask questions of the class as a whole. Or, write out the questions on a handout and have students record their answers; then, discuss the answers together as a class. This is more time consuming, but is useful for students who might have trouble focusing on the material and need the additional time to concentrate and absorb the material.

    2. Read the document aloud as a class. Ask different students to read aloud. With this method, you can pause after each line to discuss any number of issues such as difficult vocabulary, significant themes, or changes in tone. If you use this method, I suggest that you number the lines of the document or number sections for each student to read. This will allow each student to follow more easily, and allows you to create breaks for discussion. This technique allows for careful reading and can foster greater understanding of the material.

    3. Divide students into pairs. Have one student read aloud. Assign each student a particular role that could spark debate concerning the content in the document. For example, when teaching the development of written law in Babylon, you could distribute copies of Hammurabi's Code to the pairs of students. Have each student in the pair play the role of either Hammurabi or a commoner. Have the pairs read through each of several laws and discuss in their group their reactions to the law. As a final exercise to check for understanding, have the groups rewrite the laws to fit our modern world, using contemporary terminology.


Another useful strategy when using primary source documents is the use of two or more documents that represent varying viewpoints on the same issue. There are many opportunities for teachers to develop lessons using two or more documents. Any of the classroom strategies described above can be employed with multiple documents.

I would also add an additional technique: With the use of three to four documents, you may wish to create groups of three to four students. Each student in the group could be responsible for explaining one particular document to the rest of the students in the group. Alternatively, you could also have all the students in each group read and analyze the same document, but give different documents to different groups. However, it is not necessary to give each group a different document.



This lesson helps students explore the development of constitutionalism in England.



  1. Use the excerpts of the following documents to represent three diverse views on the topic.
    1. King James argues in favor of absolute power of the monarch. His justification for this lies in his assertion that the monarch's powers are divine or God-given.
    2. John Locke explains what he believes to be the limited power of the monarchy. Locke argues that people enter into a government voluntarily, to protect their property and persons. In entering this government, the people have a contract with their monarch: The king must protect them and their property. If the king does not abide by this contract, the people have a right to overthrow the monarch.
    3. Thomas Hobbes justifies absolutism. He argues that man, in a state of nature, is greedy and violent. Monarchy provides for order and personal protection of the subjects. Without this absolute power, society would degenerate into chaos.

  2. Distribute a different document to each student in groups of three, or give the same document to all the students in a particular group. Prepare questions for the group to answer. Have one student in each group record the responses, and have another student present the answers to the class. The third student can be the reader or group leader.

  3. The same general questions might be given for each document. The following questions will help guide the students in their analysis.
    1. Who is the author?
      Document #1: James I, King of England
      Document #2: Thomas Hobbes
      Document #3: John Locke]
    2. When was the document written?
      "On the Divine Right of Kings"(1609)
      Leviathan (1651)
      "Second Treatise on Government" (1689)]
    3. Who is the audience?
      [Answer: This answer could apply to all three documents: Members of the British Parliament and other literate members of the upper classes in England.]
    4. How does the author address the question of sovereignty?
      James I: Sovereignty lies entirely in the hands of the monarch. He is given this power by God.
      Locke: Sovereignty is shared in a contract between the monarch and the people.
      Hobbes: Whoever is able to maintain law and order in a society is sovereign


Listed below are suggestions for documents that can be used in a lesson in which opposing or varying viewpoints are examined.

  1. View of Man
  2. The French Revolution
  3. Conquest of the Americas
  4. Reactions to Industrialization
  5. Views of Democracy in Ancient Athens

(The idea for this comparison is directly from this year's National History Day publication for 2000–2001 "Frontiers in History.")


By reading primary sources, students can learn to draw conclusions and better understand a historical period. A comparative approach can help students appreciate commonalities, where they exist, and differences in cultures, religions, and laws of various civilizations. The use of primary source documents in your teaching can present a challenge, but the benefits your students will gain in basic skill building and in critical analysis make the challenge well worthwhile. I highly recommend this technique of using primary sources to enhance your lessons and your students' understanding of history.


"Frontiers in Ideas: Democracy in Ancient Athens." National History Day 2000–2001. 59–63.

Maier, Donna and Heidi Roupp. Treasures of the World. Glenview, IL: Scott Foresman, 1991.

Sterns, Peter N., ed. World History in Documents. New York: New York University Press, 1998.


Perseus Project

Internet History Sourcebooks Project (One of the best sites for global history primary source documents I have found thus far)

The Victorian Web (A wonderful site for documents related to Victorian England)

Hanover Historical Texts Project (A collection of historical documents in global and American history)