Teaching Primary and Secondary Sources to Elementary School Students

Your kids are probably proud of themselves if they track down any source for their research projects. They may not want to think about the extra steps it takes to find primary sources.

But primary sources are important, and teaching your child how to find and use them will help her become a strong critical thinker.

Primary sources are documents that give firsthand accounts or testimonies from direct witnesses. Your child will need to locate primary sources if she's doing a report on an historical event. She may even have an assignment that focuses on a relative or family friend who lived through an incident in history or another significant occurrence.

How do you help your child understand why primary sources are important?

You might start by playing "Telephone." That's the game where information gets whispered from one person to the next. By the time the message gets back to the original person, the information has usually changed — sometimes drastically. The game is a helpful example because it demonstrates how information shifts and alters as it passes from source to source.

Explain to your child how information changes from its original form as it gets passed around. Ask her why she thinks it would be important to use the first source of the information. What could happen if she uses information from someone further down the line?

With some discussion, she'll get a good idea of why a primary source has value.

What are examples of primary sources?

Let your child know that she will be looking for firsthand accounts from witnesses. She’ll be looking at sources like diaries, photographs, letters, or newspaper accounts. She could also look at records like report cards, ledgers, receipts, and other historical documents.

Where can you find primary sources?

Finding primary sources usually takes a few extra steps. It requires in-depth research, so you may want to plan a trip to the library with your child. While you're there, don't be afraid to ask for the librarian's guidance. You might even end up looking at microfiche! Your library probably has access to search newspaper databases, which can provide a great view into history for your child.

In addition to newspapers, published diaries, and books that contain transcripts of letters are also great resources.

How can you make research fun and interesting?

Ask your child what kinds of things students in the future could look at to learn trustworthy information about her life. Talk about documents like receipts, a journal, school papers, letters she's written, and newspaper clippings in which she is featured.

Research can seem tedious, so make it fun! Treat the library like a detective's lair and history like a fascinating mystery. Research can be like a treasure hunt. This process will also teach your child how to slow down and take her time with school projects.

She'll learn that research is not the kind of thing you slap together the night before, but something that takes time.

What are secondary sources, and how can students evaluate them?

If your child is ready for advanced steps, show her how her textbook or other history books have a bibliography or list of "Recommended Readings" in the back. She'll get a sense of how sources interact and build on each other to paint a broader picture.

The bibliography of a textbook or history book can also lead her to primary sources. Your child will usually rely on secondary sources to give her an overview of the event or period that she is researching. Specialized chapters in history books or textbooks are great secondary sources.

Explain to your child that a secondary source is written by someone who has looked at and evaluated (developed an informed opinion about) a primary source. Secondary sources describe facts and information, but they can also present an argument based on those facts. Tell your child that she should look for secondary sources written by trustworthy experts. Her textbooks are good secondary sources, as are trusted websites.

Let your child know that though it takes extra steps to locate primary sources, the results are worth it. Teaching your children the value of primary sources early will build critical-thinking skills that will serve them for a lifetime.

Want to teach your children more about academic research? Check out our article: Teaching Your Kids to Avoid Internet Research Pitfalls