Using Primary Sources to Reach Reluctant Readers and Teach Reading Skills

In the first breakout session at the DEN Pre-con in Hershey, presenter Elizabeth Shotwell  readily admitted hating social studies in high school because it was just memorizing facts. It was a History of Civilization class in college and a professor who said that history was just the “juiciest gossip” that got passed down through the years that got her interested. She is now certified as an English and social studies teacher

Reading passages are not the only way to teach reading skills. The same questions you ask about a reading passage can be asked about a “primary source.” You can:

  • use SQ3R
  • rely on student and class prior knowledge
  • use analysis and synthesis
  • encourage student inquiry

Reading skills such as bias/propaganda/stereotypes, using evidence from text to draw conclusions and make inferences, finding the main idea…why not use a primary source such as an original document or a political cartoon? Political cartoons are perfect for teaching skills such as irony, metaphor, tone, and mood. The image at the left of the Breaker Boys is one is from the Discovery Education image library and would encourage students to question ” What is the author’s or photographer’s attitude toward the subject? What mood does this evoke in the viewer?”  This is an example of how a primary source can be used to develop those important skills. Taking it a step further, why not use such primary sources as writing prompts?

The image at the right, Elizabeth went on to say, is a perfect example of how to develop metaphor.  Getting students to become familiar with the terminology by using such a tool as a political cartoon is more engaging than just using reading passages.

Elizabeth then went into the strategy of using Book Backdrops. This is using a book as a backdrop for understanding a period in history or while teaching the literature itself, pulling in primary sources to enhance the students’ understanding of the literature.

One terrific resource for primary sources is Discovery Education. Elizabeth talked about how her entire course on the 60s was developed using Discovery resources. Other great places to visit are Teaching with Primary Sources, The Learning Page, NPR, PBS, and  Primary Source Sets from the Library of Congress. Also check out the Professional Development modules which include great segments on copyright and fair use and other self-paced modules for which you can earn a certificate of completion. There is also a Book Backdrop module for learning to connect primary sources to literature through the exploration of a children’s book on Lincoln.

Some of our most reluctant learners can be engaged by seeing the real thing – a letter written by a child in the 19th century, or an image of students their own age as they headed to spend their day in a coal mine. Primary sources could be the spark that ignites their interest in learning!

Image Credits
Coal mine “breaker boys,” Ewen Breaker coal mine..  IRC, 2005.Discovery Education. Web. 12 February 2012. <

Suffrage Steamroller, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, in the Public Domain.


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