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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters


I trust all of you have seen this — the next step in the move to have national, rather than state, standards for K-12 education. In particular, the emphasis on historical literacy. This may well be very good news — or at least it has the potential to be. But I’ve been thinking more about this primary source question — and the article in the Times mentions five historical documents students are expected to have read. I realize that I have two objections to primary sources: first, to do it right, to really read a primary source well, you need a lot of preparation. In 11th grade we spent the entire year getting ready to read Moby Dick, and then reading it. We were able to tackle it because we were ready. What was true then for that classic novel is certainly true for any historical document — you need to know the time, the context, the language, the authors, to be able to really understand and interpret the document. You need to treat primary sources as carefully as great novels or, what they are really most like, works in a foreign language. You wouldn’t ask first year Spanish students to read the Quijote. They read it when they can. Exactly the same is so about primary sources — you should read them — when you can.

And that brings me to what I find so strangely absent in the discussion of primary sources: what students really need to read, and can read, and should read, is secondary sources. They should see how three different authors treat the same topic — that would expose them to historiography, point of view, context, respect for sources, etc. Students should compare and contrast left and right, new and old, views of the same past. That seems so obvious — why ask students to bumble through what is essentially a foreign language (indeed the very foreigness of the language is the entire point of the exercise) instead of reading in plain modern English books that look at that same past from differing points of view?

Well these are debates we are going to have. But for the moment, it does look like the state standards mists are clearing, and that is promising.


  1. Mary Ann Cappiello says:

    I think that we have to be careful about what we mean when we say primary sources, too. Over the years, I have had students do research using primary sources, but in the broadest sense of art, artifact, clothing, objects, as well as traditional documents. When we ask students to engage with primary source materials, not simply documents, we build up their capacity for historical inquiry as well as develop deeper levels of engagement. In my work with teachers, I have an exercise in which we use historical photographs to develop questions and engagement on topic. Next, they read a secondary source on the topic. After we’ve discussed the nonfiction book (typically a book based on documents, journals, photographs, etc.) we then, using a critical literacy perspective, explore a primary source document from a variety of perspectives. Some primary source material is great to introduce a topic of study; some primary source material can only be effectively used in the classroom, as you suggest, after serious study and engagement with secondary sources. Equipped with the prior knowledge they now have from the book they’ve read, the teachers are ready to extend their knowledge more deeply into a document. I refer to this exercise as “Primary Sources as Scaffolds and Extensions.” Some primary source materials generate prior knowledge for students and build up their capacity to take on a longer secondary source; some primary source materials/documents are extensions of the knowledge that they have gained from the secondary source. And of course, all of this is on a sliding developmental scale. You can do this with second graders and you can do this with high school seniors; the selection of materials and what you ask them to do with it is what changes. Teachers can get overwhelmed with primary source material; I have found labeling them as what they are “good for” as a scaffold or extension is a useful tool. It’s also been effective as a means of doing research to write original historical fiction or to write more traditional research papers/articles.

  2. Marc Aronson says:

    Mary Ann:

    Now that is a thoughtful and clear description of how primary sources can and should be used. My concern is that at times PS are mentioned as a sort of automatic solution to the problem of historical POV. As if, if we took kids directly to the sources there would be no conflict of interpretation, the facts would speak for themselves. But of course, as you show, they don’t.