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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

What Is So Great About Primary Sources?

You Tell Me, Because I Don’t Get It

I was visisting an elementary school recently, preaching the gospel of nonfiction. The principal nodded her head, agreeing with me all the way. "Yes," she said, "we want to start the kids on reading primary sources." Why? From this principal who is responsible for kids from third to 5th grade, to high school teachers I hear the same thing all of the time. And it was my wife, who teaches college students, who crystalized the problem. Her students, Marina, realized, do not know the elements of analysis: neither when they read nor when they are asked to research and write do they have a firm grasp on the difference between opinion and fact, generalization and insight. Required to use supportive evidence, they instead give a summary of the context. Their schools, their families, our society, has not required them to develop the skills to break down an argument — whether that is a bias in a newspaper article, a point of view in a novel, the argument of a history text, or the slant of a TV show.

When we ask studnets to learn, they need a toolkit for thinking — for mining knowledge from the glut of information and the flood of opinion that surrounds them. It makes no difference whether they learn to use that toolkit by analyzing a newspaper, a graphic novel, a secondary history book, or even the set of ims and text messages they received the night before. In fact, very likely, they are better at reading and questioning those text messages because they know their friends have their own biases and causes. Whenever I ask 8th-9th graders about the Salem witch trials, they assume the accusing teenagers, kids their age, were liars because they know how manipulative they are. 

If our goal is to sharpen their analytical tools, why give them documents whose terminology, frame of reference, context impose challenges of their own? Sure, having kids read Shakespeare, which presents all of those problems, is a good idea. That is because the writing itself is so powerful, is such a bedrock of our culture. We don’t read Shakespeare because it is old. We read the plays because the work itself is so powerful. So sure, read the Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg Address, the Bible as literature. But outside of those cornerstones I just don’t see the great rush to primary sources.

If the goal is to help kids to think and question, why is the source the issue? Shouldn’t we focus on what the students make of texts, rather than the texts themselves?


  1. Monica Edinger says:

    They are great for upper elementary kids because they are as close as we can bring those kids to the voices of the past. Primary sources can be oral histories (my students do these in the fall), walking tours of neighborhoods (we do one of the Lower East Side), and documents (I just did a workshop on using a couple of pages of Mourt’s Relation, the Pilgrim journal with kids.) I can’t imagine too many teachers using primary sources exclusively, but used judiciously they are the best way to go back in time with kids, to get them excited about the learning of history. It is direct for them — a form of touching the past. (As you probably remember I did a book for teachers all about this — Seeking History: Teaching with Primary Sources in Grades 4-6.)

  2. Monica, I would agree with the phrase “used judiciously”. I think too many times as educators, I am guilty of this, we assume kids have the skills needed to accomplish a given task. We forget to teach the skills needed prior to accomplishing the task. I tried to share this with a staff member who told 7th graders to use at least 2 primary source documents in a report without much instruction except a few websites to find such information. The kids floundered terribly. Like any skill, how to do it has to be taught and often retaught several times over. No blame here, it is easy to forget how challenging a task is when we are use to doing it. I guess my point is, make sure there is a valid reason for requiring primary source documents.

  3. Monica Edinger says:

    Amy,I totally agree with you. I do explicit skill instruction, modeling how to read and interpret the primary sources I use. To simply tell kids they have to use sources without teaching them how to use them is a whole ‘nother story, a sort of teaching I definitely do not ascribe to.

  4. Marc Aronson says:

    this is my third attempt to post to my own blog, frustrating. Monica I am sure you do “explicit skill instruction.” My point is that many teachers do not, and expect primary sources to work some kind of miracle on students’ minds. To me the key is that instruction, the primary source is a nice extra once you have that.