Analyzing Primary Sources

Analyzing primary and secondary sources is a necessary skill for students to atttain, and can be learned through interesting activtities.

By Daniella Garran

Analyzing Primary and Secondary Sources

The ability to analyze primary sources is one of the most important skills students must master in their history classes. Before you can conduct any sort of analysis, however, students must understand the difference between primary and secondary sources. This in and of itself is not difficult to understand, but being able to identify primary and secondary sources correctly is the first step in such an analysis. Take some time to explain that primary sources must be examined for bias, reliability and point of view. Be sure that students are able to identify each of these in written documents. Also, make sure to explain that secondary sources are informed by primary sources.

To help students distinguish between primary and secondary sources, display a wide variety of sources such as textbooks, newspapers, photographs, encyclopedias, diaries, letters and government documents. Pre-test students and ask them to identify which sources are primary and which sources are secondary. Be sure to go over the correct answers.

Depending on what region and time period you are covering, you will have access to different types of sources. The following example applies to World War II and the Holocaust. The best web sites to locate reliable information and examples are the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Yad Vashem. First, divide the class into small groups of four or five. Choose several examples of photographs, diary entries, letters and documents that reflect different perspectives and points of view, but that are all primary sources. Copy and distribute as many copies as you have groups (each group should have one photo, one document, one letter, etc.). Ask each group to analyze their sources using a document analysis worksheet (if you don’t have one, see the first web site listed below).  When you discuss the documents, be sure to also analyze the point of view, bias and intended audience of each resource. For more lessons and activities to aid students in analyzing primary sources see below.

Primary Source Lesson Plans:

Voices of the American Revolution 

For those studying the American Revolution, primary document analysis is critical. In this lesson, students read documents that show multiple perspectives on the Rebels, the Loyalists, Africans in America, and religion. This lesson provides a document analysis worksheet that can be used for these and other documents.

Analyzing a D-Day Diary

Students learn how to analyze a diary as a primary source by reading excerpts from Sidney Montz’s D-Day diary. This is an excellent lesson for those just learning to analyze and interpret primary documents as well as for those learning about World War II. While the diary entries are quite brief, students can develop a sense of a soldier’s daily life.

Death and Dying in Puritan Society

Using death records and gravestones, students gain experience in analyzing primary documents. This lesson explores death in Puritan New England (specifically Cape Cod), but could be applied to other regions or time periods.

The Document-Based Question

Document Based Question (DBQ) is a popular strategy used among middle and high school teachers to help students analyze photos, records, oral history, diaries and other primary sources. This lesson utilizes sources from the American Revolution, the Civil War and both World Wars.