Teaching Primary Students with Primary Sources

My teachers at the Library of Congress in the Teaching with Primary Resources "Department" have developed a powerful model and set of materials for teaching people of all ages with primary sources. PLEASE visit their site and materials FIRST... then what I have collected and built here will be more instructive, purposeful, and useful for you with your littlest learners.

GO HERE FIRST: http://www.loc.gov/teachers/usingprimarysources/

RETURN HERE for ideas and tips for using their process with young learners who are not yet fluent readers and writers.


Usually we begin with OBSERVATION... learners identifying what they see or notice in concrete terms noting the details as they are able. In my experience it might be best to keep things simple first and add layers as time and experience allow. With this in mind, here are a few ideas I wish to share to further refine this process for our youngest learners...


Begin with simple steps to build vocabulary and comfort with the task of OBSERVATION.

Choose Primary Sources Carefully.

  • Choose primary sources with plenty to "talk about" - build background knowledge or choose images with some familiarity at first.
  • Choose primary sources with little "dispute" to start, add ambiguity and higher level discussion as students become more comfortable with the process.
  • Baseline: Start with teaching the process both overtly and through repeated practice with interesting content, then, as students become more comfortable with the process add more complex content and deeper conversation.

For example: If you show a picture of a farm with typical farm animals you might hear students say things like....

"I see a cow" " I see a pig" "I see a brown animal" and maybe someone will say "I see a farm"... you can then prompt with something like "I heard you say you saw a farm.... what things do you see that makes you say you see a farm?"

Some ideas for facilitating the observation portion of this process:

"Look silently and store 3 things to you see in the primary source in your head."

"Be ready to share something you think no one else might have seen."

"Put your finger on one thing you plan to share."

"Share something with your "elbow partner" by silently pointing at it."

"Oh! I see what you see!"

If you need to redirect learners try changing your prompting:

"What else do you see?"

"Point to something no one else has mentioned yet."

"What did you see in this area? (cover or highlight a portion of the image)"

"Use your finger binoculars to look again."

"Let's list what we see into people, things, and actions or activities."

Remember, if students use reflection or inference some good prompts to tie it back to observation are:

"Can you point to that?"

"What do you see that helps you to think that?"

"What clues do you see?"

"Did you see something that made you say that or was it something you already knew?"

"You have an interesting reflection, what did you see that leads you to that thought?"

If students start adding questions and you have a reason to return them to observation you can honor their questions by noting them and then returning them to observation with prompts like:

That is something I wonder too, is there anything we can see here to help us?

I will write your question down so we can think more about that later...

I can tell you are thinking. Lets keep thinking as we look for more details in the picture...

If you have more ideas to add to this list PLEASE send them to Gail Lovely via email: Gail@GailLovely.com


This process is truly non-linear, however the observation of the details of the image really does come first. Some images do cause learners to immediately label or react (just try showing a picture of a cute puppy to anyone and have them not respond with "Ahhh it's so cute"). One of the goals here is to help our learners look at the details of the image to determine WHY they might react in a certain way or think a certain thought, idea or concept. It is also in this part of the process that they begin to test their ideas and hypotheses about the image. Some prompts here might include:

"What's happening in this image?" (and what do you see to tell you that?)

"Who are the people in this image?" (and what do you see to suggest that is who they are?)

"Where do you think this is a picture of?" (and what do you see to help you to think that?)

"Was this picture taken here? Why do you think that? What do you see in the picture to help you decide?"

"If someone took this picture today how might it be the same?" "How might it be different?" "What clues do you see?"

If you have more ideas to add to this list PLEASE send them to Gail Lovely via email: Gail@GailLovely.com


I prefer the term "Wonder" to "question" as wondering seems to me to be less structured than  questioning and perhaps has a more positive connotation... one might wonder about the kinds of farm animals on farms in Africa but not be able to formulate a well-worded question. Regardless of how you label this part of the process, the wondering and questioning will lead, and SHOULD lead, to more observations and reflections, especially if this is in a group setting.The standard 6 "question words" (who, what, where, when, why, and how) are good stems... some prompts may include...

"What do you wonder about after looking at (observing) this image?"
"If you could ask a person (or animal) in this picture a question, what would you ask?"

Of course the big question is:
"What more do you/we want to find out?"

It may be difficult for the youngest learners to be able to answer the question about how to learn more, but we can help them with this as appropriate. Perhaps this is an activity before we read a specific book or learn about a specific topic and it is a natural lead in and then it is fairly easy. We can also provide other related images to explore to help move the learners along on their wondering and thinking.

Remember... this is NOT a linear process..