About Primary and Secondary Resources
Historian Sam Wineburg notes in his book Historical Thinking that "it's not enough to expose students to alternative visions of the past, already digested and interpreted by others." Students derive real meaning from history as they use primary and secondary sources to retell the story.
While social studies instruction has traditionally focused on the distinction between primary and secondary sources, state standards now require that students use primary and secondary sources in the construction of historical narratives. The identification of a resource as primary or secondary is subjective, varying according to purpose. Take a newspaper, for example. You could classify a newspaper that prints an eyewitness account as a primary source; but you would classify a newspaper that publishes a reporter's story of an eyewitness's observations as a secondary sourcethe reporter's account is secondhand. So a source can be primary, secondary, or both.
What exactly are primary and secondary sources?
Primary sources are print or visual items that represent a firsthand account. Primary sources can also be an original object (artifact) that was made during the time period that is being studied. Here are some examples:
- Print and audio and visual materials: Diaries and journals, newspapers, inventories, speeches, photographs, manuscripts, personal letters, official correspondence, interviews, film and video, recordings, autobiographies, official documents, advertisements, birth and death records, maps, logs, paintings and other artwork
- Objects: Original pottery, clothing, tools, weapons, architectural structures (such as buildings, bridges), furnishings, archaeological artifacts
A secondary source a secondhand accountreports on, analyzes, or describes a primary source. Examples of secondary sources include:
- Print and visual materials: Biographies, magazine articles, newspapers, histories, criticisms, commentaries, obituaries, encyclopedias and other reference works, textbooks, poems, plays, novels, paintings and other artwork, movies and videos
Note in regard to primary and secondary sources and the image of the Declaration of Independence that appears in the slide above: According to the National Archives, from which the image was taken, "The above image of the Declaration is taken from the engraving made by printer William J. Stone in 1823 and is the most frequently reproduced version of the document."
Building Historical Thinking
Ohio children in prekindergarten to grade 2 learn about the language of time, the sequence of historical events, and the chronology of time. They learn about the use of artifacts, maps, and photographs to show change over time.
By grades 3 and 4, students are able to use primary and secondary sources to create a historical narrative. These are foundational skills for work at later grades where students locate, research, analyze, and interpret information in order to understand relationships among events and draw conclusions.
- Elementary students are familiar with narrative fiction, but this is their first exposure to using primary and secondary sources to build evidence in a historical narrative. So when selecting primary and secondary sources at this level, choose texts where context clues are somewhat obvious.
- Sometimes it will be necessary to modify or enhance a resource to accommodate diverse learners. To do this, you might use word banks, highlight text, or select excerpts from documents. Visit "Adapting Documents for the Classroom: Equity and Access" for helpful strategies.
Skills from the Historical Thinking and Skills topic in the History Strand should not be taught in isolation, but rather as connected to the content; this way, skills are practiced over time. Pairing content statements from the Ohio 2010 Academic Content Standards with the historical thinking skills offers one strategy for making connections.
As an example, let's choose Content Statement 4.2 (a Historical Thinking and Skills statement):
Primary and secondary sources can be used to create historical narratives.
And let's pair it with Content Statement 4.3 (a Heritage statement):
Various groups of people have lived in Ohio over time including prehistoric and historic American Indians, migrating settlers and immigrants. Interactions among these groups have resulted in both cooperation and conflict.
This is a complex content statement involving prehistoric and historic American Indians, settlers that migrated from other areas of the thirteen colonies, and immigrants. The content includes interactions among these groups as they relate to conflict and cooperation.
Here are some resources that you could use to teach both content statements:
Ohio History Teacher: A Conflict over Land: American Indians vs. Settlers
This resource contains both primary and secondary sources.
It is an instructional resource that will help your students understand the cultural differences among American Indians and European settlers that led to disputes and conflicts regarding land ownership. Three separate activities highlight the different perspectives regarding the use and ownership of land. The resource includes quotations from people from the time period, maps, an extensive glossary, and additional resources from the Ohio Historical Society. Interdisciplinary connections can be made with mathematics as students explore different methods of measuring land.
Making Treaties and Weaving Wampum
This lesson is about the communication that developed between Native Americans and the early U.S. government using both treaties and wampum belts. Students create a treaty timeline for those made between various American Indian tribes and the early U.S. government. Given a specific treaty and corresponding wampum belt, students analyze and compare the two. The lesson's content is relevant to grade 4, where students look at the interactions of various groups and resulting conflict, and grade 5, where students compare cultural characteristics of various American Indian groups. Please know that, as of this writing, some of the links on this website are deadwe recognize this as a hazard of Internet resources that contain linksbut the basic bones of the lesson are good; it's just that you may need to refashion or improvise a bit here or there.
This site from the Ohio Historical Society provides information on prehistoric American Indians. Included are a colorful and easy-to-use timeline, images, artifacts, and information on locations. The readability is appropriate for fourth grade students. The images category features artifacts, color photos, and drawings. Information on more than twenty different Indian groups is available. Students can select boldfaced words to access additional information.
First Americans West: The Ohio River Valley 17501820
This Teaching American Historyreviewed website is a valuable teacher resource. The website presents approximately 15,000 pages of related materials. Resources include books, pamphlets, newspapers, periodicals, journals, letters, legal documents, images, maps, and ledgers. The site includes a special presentation with a 6,500-word essay on contested lands, peoples and migration, empires and politics, Western life and culture, and the construction of a Western past.
Some general thoughts about resources, both primary and secondary:
- In searching for resources on this topic, we found the Ohio Historical Society website invaluable. Many museums and historical sites around the state also have good websites. Check out Social Studies Around Ohio for a list of Ohio sites.
- When you use images, maps, journals, letters, etc., have students analyze their relationship to either conflict or cooperation among the various groups that settled in Ohio during this time period. You can have students complete a graphic organizer as they review the sources to organize and display their information. Students can use the Historical Thinking Skills chart presented in Stanford History Education Group: Reading like a Historian as they examine their sources.
- For an excellent explanation of primary and secondary sources, see "What Are Primary Resources?" Primary Sources at Yale.
- The new Gilder Lehman Institute of American History website features online exhibitions on important topics, historian podcasts including short videos on essential questions, history organized by era, and numerous primary sources. Lesson plans, activities, and traveling exhibitions are also available. Starting in July 2012, limited free access will continue for educators and students. (The annual fee for full access is minimal.)
Wineburg, Sam, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past, Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 2001, p. 131.