Primary and Secondary Sources

Classroom Resources, Lesson Plans, and Activities

Teaching with primary sources helps us develop students’ historical thinking, but doing this well is not as easy as it may seem. The following resources can guide our pedagogy.

Teaching Tools 

  • SIGHT  – Use this simple and remarkably effective acronym across grade levels to guide students in the analysis of images.  It works as well with 5th graders as 11th.  
  • W’s Analysis Worksheet – Use for written documents – simply asks students to consider who, what, when, when, why, how and who cares about a document.  These one pagers for each element of the tool could be posted in your classroom.  Or take a look at this version that breaks down the questions – used in grade seven, catchily titled the Document Juicer!


  • American Rhetoric is dedicated to archiving American speeches, lectures, sermons, interviews and “other important media events.” Its “Online Speech Bank” contains full text, audio and video for more than 5,000 speeches.
  • Archiving Early America presents a wide array of primary source material on 18th century America, such as newspapers, maps, writings and portraits. It also includes Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography and an 1807 biography of George Washington.
  • Archives of Lesbian Oral Testimony contains oral history audio and video recordings, radio and television programs, and associated materials.
  • Beyond the Bubble – Another SHEG project, Beyond the Bubble “uses innovative assessments that gauge historical thinking in easy-to-use, classroom-friendly ways.   More than 65 Assessments, interactive rubrics, and sample student responses “capture students’ knowledge in action – rather than their recall of discrete facts.
  • Clio Visualizing History is a nonprofit education organization dedicated to creating innovative online history exhibits designed to engage students and assist educators. Make sure to explore the Ongoing Feminist Revolution exhibit.
  • Daryl Cagle’s Teachers’ Guide for the Professional Cartoonists Index offers lesson plans for using modern editorial cartoons in the classroom.
  • Digital Public Library of America – An incredible array of primary source sets,  “designed to help students develop critical thinking skills by exploring topics in history, literature, and culture through primary sources. Drawing online materials from libraries, archives, and museums across the United States, the sets use letters, photographs, posters, oral histories, video clips, sheet music, and more. Each set includes a topic overview, ten to fifteen primary sources, links to related resources, and a teaching guide.” Be sure to not miss the Black Women’s Suffrage Digital Collection.
  • The Digital Transgender Archive is an international collaboration among more than sixty colleges, universities, nonprofit organizations, public libraries, and private collections designed to increase the accessibility of transgender history.
  • Docs Teach – Using primary sources from its collection, the National Archives education staff crafts high-quality lessons and activities based on primary sources and focused on building historical and critical thinking skills.  You can borrow from an ever-expanding collection of document-based activities built by National Archives specialists and teachers around the world. Use or modify ready-made activities.
  • Enslaved: Peoples of the Historical Slave Trade is one of the latest digital archives to come online. Enslaved draws connections between existing datasets to piece together fragmentary narratives. These narratives allow you to explore or reconstruct the lives of individuals who were enslaved, owned slaves, or participated in the historical trade.
  • EyeWitness to History features first-person accounts of prominent events in U.S. and world history, along with a simple explanation of the event’s importance.
  • Freedom on the Move is a database run by Cornell University that archives runaway advertisements over hundreds of years.
  • HarpWeek examines presidential elections, the Civil War, Reconstruction and other events of 19th century America through the articles and cartoons of Harper’s Weekly.
  • Historical Scenes Investigation – Here’s case investigations in which students  investigate historical questions, using primary sources and other materials. These cases are aimed at students in grades 4-8.
  • Historical Voices is a fully searchable online database of spoken word collections spanning the 20th century.
  • Interference Archive encourages the exploration of the relationship between cultural production and social movements and so includes many kinds of objects that are created as part of social movements by the participants themselves: posters, flyers, publications, zines, books, T-shirts and buttons, moving images, audio recordings, subject files, and other materials.
  • KidCitizen is Library of Congress TPS program’s interactive tool for engaging elementary students with primary sources, is perfect for encouraging historical thinking. They’re adding new episodes and updated their Editor so that you can create your own.
  • The Library of Congress’ A Century of Lawmaking provides the records of the Continental Congress, Constitutional Convention and first 43 sessions of Congress (1789-1873).
  • The Library of Congress’ Chronicling America displays images of late 19th and early 20th century American newspaper pages.
  • The Library of Congress’s Teaching with Primary Sources (TPS) for teacher culled and created lessons incorporating the endless collection of documents housed at the LOC.
  • The Library of Congress’ “Voices from the Days of Slavery: Former Slaves Tell Their Stories” features audio of 20th century interviews of 23 former slaves.
  • The National Archives Bureau of Indian Affairs just published a Record Group with over 18,000 photographs searchable by tribal nation, topic, and location.
  • The National Parks Service’s Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System is a database that makes it easy to find personal records Civil War soldiers, sailors, prisoners and regiments.
  • The National Security Archive is an independent institute located at The George Washington University that presents documents to the public after they have been declassified by the government.
  • Ohio State University’s eHistory has a massive collection of famous documents, letters collections and online books. The highlight of the collection is the Official Records of the Civil War, made up of material from the military departments of the Union and Confederacy.
  • The Oyez Project at Northwestern University allows you to listen to the Supreme Court justices as they deliberate cases, providing a complete source of all audio recorded since the installation of a recording system in the Court in 1955.
  • Primary Source Sets from the Minnesota Historical Society – Primary source sets form one of the nation’s best historical society – the same folks who brought us our TLH framework.  
  • The Stanford History Education Group – SHEG, has taken a lead in on-line teacher resources for teaching students to read and write and think like historians. 
  • South Asian American Digital Archive documenting, preserving, and sharing stories of South Asian Americans.
  • Teaching with Primary Sources Inquiry Kits – As the perfect springboard for middle and high school student research projects, TPS Inquiry Kits have five primary sources, mostly from the Library of Congress, and one secondary source. Each kit features three thinking questions to guide students, and web-based tools to help them analyze the historical sources. Teachers might choose to simply use one document and one question as a warm up at the beginning of class. You could also use the sources as a primary sources set, and even arrange them into a gallery walk.
  • TPS Teachers Network is a social media platform that welcomes, connects, and engages teachers in conversations about the use of primary sources in social studies education, especially those from the Library of Congress.
    National Archives – DocsTeach – While this online resource for teaching documents is rich, the weighing the evidence tool is particularly special.  Kids read docs, then drag them onto a scale to evaluate the weight of the arguments.
  • The University of North Carolina’s “North American Slave Narratives” is a collection of slave biographies and autobiographies published as books or pamphlets.
  • The University of Virginia’s “The Valley of the Shadow: Two Communities in the American Civil War” chronicles two counties, Augusta County, Va., and Franklin County, Penn., contrasting their experiences from John Brown’s Raid to the end of Reconstruction.
  • The Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement features testimony of members of Civil Rights organizations such as CORE, NAACP, SCLC and SNCC, who submit stories about their experiences or write commentary on the movement and current events.
  • What’s Going On in This Picture – The New York Times gives students the opportunity to read closely images stripped of their captions. (and, too, What’s Going On in This Graph)
  • World Digital Library – Massive list of primary sources searchable by keyword and visual map.