Using Primary Sources in the Primary Grades

The following article is from the Office of Educational Research and Improvement which is part of the Department of Education.


What do a stamped Christmas postcard dated 1910, a Confederate one hundred dollar bill, soda pop bottles from Egypt, ice tongs, a rug beater, and a woven prayer rug from the Middle East with a picture of the Kaaba at Mecca all have in common? These and many other artifacts can become primary sources, the very real “stuff” of the social studies that can so effectively engage the young learner in active learning. The use of primary sources in the classroom is a way for students to develop the intellectual curiosity that leads to further research and increased awareness of the world around them.


The definition of “primary sources” varies. Danzer and Newman (1996, 22) examine this conceptual problem by discussing several definitions recognized by historians. They tend to agree with Henry Johnson’s expansive concept that “primary sources include all the traces left by the human past — present ideals, present social customs and institutions, language, literature, material products of human industry, physical man himself, and the physical remains of men.”

Johnson’s broad definition of primary sources leads to great flexibility for classroom use, especially for beginning readers of the primary grades. The HISTORY-SOCIAL SCIENCE FRAMEWORK FOR CALIFORNIA PUBLIC SCHOOLS, KINDERGARTEN THROUGH GRADE TWELVE (1997, 147) explains that “documents make up most, but not all, of the primary source materials used by historians.” Historians may use documents but teachers of early grades will frequently use realia or “ephemera” (Danzer and Newman 1996, 24) of the material culture.

Danzer and Newman (1991, 24) identify types of primary sources, including (1) print documents; (2) electronic media; (3) arts — graphic and fine; (4) folklore, folkways, and mythology; and (5) physical environment and material culture (built environment and artifacts). These five categories may aid teachers in identifying primary sources. Danzer and Newman, however, caution teachers to recognize that some primary sources materials may fit into more than one of the categories.


“Primary sources are the ore from which history is made” (Danzer and Newman 1996, 22). Using primary sources is a way to link the human in the classroom with the humans involved in the creation of the sources. Often students fail to see the link between the remote past and the immediate present. Primary sources can create a bridge over that gap, a way of “tuning in” (Danzer and Newman 1996, 21) to the teaching of social studies.

Examination of primary sources is a performance expectation for the “Time, Continuity and Change” thematic strand of the NCSS CURRICULUM STANDARDS FOR SOCIAL STUDIES (National Council for the Social Studies, 1994, 22). The performance expectation for the early grades is that students should be able to “identify and use various sources for reconstructing the past, such as documents, letters, diaries, maps, textbooks, photos and others” (NCSS 1994, 2D, 34). THE NATIONAL STANDARDS FOR HISTORY FOR GRADES K-4 also emphasizes student use of various kinds of primary sources in inquiries about topics in history (National Center for History in the Schools 1994, 15-26). By introducing primary sources in the classroom, students can question, explore, research, and draw links to the distant past in a fresh and creative way.

Barton and Levstik (1996) investigated the historical understanding of time among elementary children through the use of archival photographs. They found that “even the youngest children made some basic distinction in historical time” (Barton and Levstik 1996, 419). As the children matured, such distinctions of time became more sophisticated in concept. The students’ ability to place the photographs in proper time sequence based on visual cues “indicates a significant body of understanding of historical chronology (Barton and Levstik 1996, 416). The researchers recommend that study of history in the elementary grades “might productively focus on helping students refine and extend the knowledge they have gained about history” (Barton and Levstik 1996, 419).


Using primary sources in the classroom is limited only by one’s creativity and imagination. In the introductory sentence of this DIGEST, several examples of primary sources are listed, including soda bottles from another culture, Confederate money, ice tongs, a rug beater, a prayer rug, and Christmas postcards. The social studies thematic strands of “Time, Continuity and Change,” “Culture,” and “People, Places and Environments” (NCSS 1994) could be addressed using these items and so could most of the national history standards for students in the primary grades (National Center for History in the Schools, 1994).

The stamped, dated Christmas postcards can be used to prompt inquiry on social customs and how they change over time, technological change, and the cost of postage using math as an extension activity.

The Confederate money addresses governmental structure, a different way of life, social customs and values, as well as a way to explore the institution of slavery in the United States.

Ice tongs and a rug beater can be used to stimulate investigations about social history, technological change, household chores, and modern conveniences.

The Egyptian soda bottles and the Muslim prayer rug can be used in studies of cultural beliefs and practices, architecture and technology, assimilation, and religion.

Whole units of instruction can be built around a single artifact that allows students to “get involved” with the learning process and explore the questions that naturally arise from a curious mind. Such study easily accommodates an interdisciplinary approach, as students may study the technology of printing money and how the process has changed over time. Math can be incorporated into the study of how long ago something occurred and how much the money is worth. Language arts can be used to create a story about the origin of the Confederacy or the route the money may have traveled over time. These ideas can all lead to further research, leading to further questions. Teachers must be willing to allow students to find answers to their questions as primary sources “have the power to bring history to life, to engage students creatively and analytically” (Danzer and Newman 1996, 24).


Primary sources can be found everywhere. If that appears an oversimplification, one needs only to think about the expanded definition of primary sources. Attics, garages, basements, auctions, sales — ad infinitum — provide numerous opportunities to find primary sources. Travel is another way to acquire artifacts for classroom use. Local historical societies and places of historical significance are often willing to loan materials to teachers and may even provide an interpreter to explain and demonstrate how the artifact was used.

State historical bureaus, museums, and libraries have replicas of primary sources in their collections. Diaries, letters, photographs, drawings, and other such items are often used to teach state and local history. State and national parks often offer have similar materials available. Ethnic, social, and cultural clubs may provide artifacts for classroom use or make speakers available to schools.

Much exists in the public domain which can be used for specific topics of research. The National Digital Library Program of the Library of Congress recently created “American Memory,” an on-line collection of digitized versions of millions of items in its United States history collections available to the public on the Internet ( The materials can be downloaded for classroom use.

The National Archives and Records Administration maintains the National Archives in Washington, D.C. as well as thirteen regional offices to provide access to its holdings. They can be contacted on the Internet ( and by e-mail (

World Wise Schools, maintained by the Peace Corps, provides a variety of resources for teachers. A newsletter, lesson plans created by former Peace Corps volunteers, a program of correspondence exchange with active Peace Corps volunteers, speakers, videos and teacher guides, and a web site are among their offerings. Contact World Wise Schools on the World Wide Web ( or by e-mail at (


Andel, Marie A. “Digging for the Secrets of Time: Artifacts, Old Foundations, and More …” SOCIAL STUDIES AND THE YOUNG LEARNER 3 (September-October 1990): 9-11. EJ 426 377.

Barton, Keith C., and Linda S. Levstik. “‘Back When God Was Around and Everything’: Elementary Children’s Understanding of Historical Time.” AMERICAN EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH JOURNAL 33 (Summer 1996): 419-454. EJ number to be announced.

Brophy, Jere, and Bruce VanSledright. TEACHING AND LEARNING HISTORY IN ELEMENTARY SCHOOLS. New York: Teachers College Press, 1997. ED 417 108.

Danzer, Gerald, and Mark Newman. “Primary Sources in the Teaching of History.” In BRING HISTORY ALIVE! A SOURCEBOOK FOR TEACHING UNITED STATES HISTORY, eds. K. Ankeney, R. Del Rio, G. Nash, D. Vigilante. Los Angeles: National Center for History in the Schools, 1997. ED 417 121.

Nash, Gary B., and Linda Symcox. “Bringing History Alive in the Classroom: A Collaborative Project.” OAH MAGAZINE OF HISTORY 6 (Summer 1991): 25-29. EJ 445 194.

National Archives and Records Administration. TEACHING WITH DOCUMENTS: USING PRIMARY SOURCES FROM THE NATIONAL ARCHIVES. Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Administration; National Council for the Social Studies. 1989. ED 318 667.

National Center for History in the Schools. NATIONAL STANDARDS FOR HISTORY FOR GRADES K-4. Los Angeles, CA: National Center for History in the Schools, 1994. ED 375 075.

Podany, Amanda. “Using Primary Sources in the Study of History.” In HISTORY-SOCIAL SCIENCE FRAMEWORK FOR CALIFORNIA PUBLIC SCHOOLS, KINDERGARTEN THROUGH GRADE TWELVE. Sacramento, CA: California State Board of Education, 1997. ED 417 117.

Schneider, Donald, and Others. EXPECTATIONS OF EXCELLENCE: CURRICULUM STANDARDS FOR SOCIAL STUDIES. Washington, DC: National Council for the Social Studies, 1994. ED 378 131.


Evelyn Holt Otten is a staff member of the ERIC Clearinghouse for Social Studies/Social Science Education. She is also a member of the Board of Directors of the Indiana Council of the Social Studies (ICSS) and a past Executive Director of ICSS.


This publication was prepared with funding from the Office of Educational Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education, under contract RR93002014. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of OERI or ED.

Title: Using Primary Sources in the Primary Grades. ERIC Digest.
Document Type: Information Analyses—ERIC Information Analysis Products (IAPs) (071); Information Analyses—ERIC Digests (Selected) in Full Text (073);
Available From: ERIC Clearinghouse for Social Studies/Social Science Education, 2805 East Tenth Street, Suite 120, Bloomington, IN, 47408; telephone: 1-800-266-3815.
Descriptors: Active Learning, Discovery Learning, Elementary Education, History, History Instruction, Learner Controlled Instruction, Primary Education, Primary Sources, Social Studies
Identifiers: ERIC Digests


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