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Social Studies Methods

Primary sources offer the best way to help kids engage with history, connect to the people of the past, and make history come alive.

Teaching students to think critically about history is a key social studies skill but also one of the most challenging to teach young learners. Primary sources are the foundation of historical study yet they are often difficult to interpret. Primary sources offer the best way to help kids engage with history, connect to the people of the past, and make history come alive. 

Students at this age group will have had very limited exposure to working with primary sources. These guides—combined with the instructional material in the Analyze It! section on the student side of the website—will guide kids in learning close-looking techniques and encourage them to really look at the primary source before them. They will also help teachers introduce children to the basic principles of working with primary sources, mainly the effort to understand the primary source better, date the primary source, and begin to explore how the primary source reflects its time.  

Timelines, although not a primary source, as also very useful for learning about the relationship between various historical events and chronological sequencing. Powerful visual learning tools, timelines offer students a different way to conceptualize information and a structural framework in which to organize their developing knowledge of the past.    

In addition, the Analyze It! section of this website offers an introductory video for students that covers each type of primary source presented here. 

In the years ahead, students will further develop their abilities to work with primary sources, but this instructional material will help teachers introduce important foundational concepts. 

Lesson: Understanding Primary and Secondary Sources

Start with this lesson plan that to help students understand the difference between primary and secondary sources.

Interpreting Photographs

Photograph Icon
Applying historical thinking to a photograph means a student can: decode its basic elements, understand its unique story, and interpret how photographs reflect the time in which they were taken.

Interpreting Objects

objects
Students need frequent experiences with examining objects to develop historical thinking skills.

Interpreting Documents

documents
Applying historical thinking to a document means a student can: decode its basic elements, understand its unique story, and interpret it's content to show how it reflects the time it was created.

Interpreting Maps

Map
Students need frequent experiences with examining, using, and creating maps to develop historical thinking skills.

Interpreting Audiovisuals

interpreting audiovisuals
Recordings should be brief, no more than a few minutes at most, to allow for repeated viewing and/or listening throughout the examination.

Interpreting Timelines

timelines
Applying historical thinking to a timeline means a student can: decode its basic elements, master chronological organization, and understand the relationship between historical events.