How to Conduct Close Readings of Difficult Primary Source Texts

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

These two sentences from the Declaration of Independence are central to American identity, critical to understanding American History, and a stirring invocation of an exciting and radical political philosophy. However, if you read them to your average eighth-grader on the first day of school, the standard response would probably be – “Say What?”

The National Council for Social Studies C3 framework and the Common Core State Standards all place a critical emphasis on developing the critical reading abilities of students. Students are not only expected to determine explicit meanings of text, but also to interpret phrases and analyze word choice to gain insights and make inferences. Yet, to many students, primary source texts are complete gibberish. To help students begin to engage with these sources, teachers and schools should make the “struggle” of understanding these texts a visible and celebrated part of the curriculum with collaborative “think-aloud” activities.

In the Discovery Education Social Studies Techbook, we call these activities “Say What?” – in honor of our students’ reactions to difficult texts and we use this type throughout our courses. We encourage teachers to use these activities as gateways into primary source analysis for struggling or tentative readers. Students are asked to rewrite the text in their own words, summarize, and then analyze to draw conclusions.

The “Say What?” activity is based on a few principles:

  • Start small
  • Make strategies explicit
  • Model the “struggle” of decoding a text
  • Foster collaborative decoding and analysis

In each activity, a complex text is broken into several components that could be understood independently. We position each segment of the text in a wide font, triple-spaced onto a page so that students have plenty of room to mark up and modify the text.  We provide clear tips for pre-reading and word attack.

Then, we encourage teachers to model decoding and re-writing the first line of text. Discovery Education provides model “think aloud” scripts to get teachers started. Teachers should puzzle through the text – making connections to prior knowledge, thinking through the possible meanings of unfamiliar words, returning to prior text – to create their own “translation.”

Then, students work in small groups to “translate” their portion of the text, thinking aloud and working collaboratively. When groups are finished, they work together to illustrate or diagram their text – showing their ability to summarize the meaning – and answer analysis and reflection questions.

Students groups can then share their portions of the text and translations with the class as a whole – contributing to a class understanding of the text. Teachers can conduct class discussions around the analysis questions, with students drawing on their portions as evidence. Teachers should also discuss the process of decoding and analysis each section. Students should be able to articulate how they read difficult texts and provide support or strategies for others.

The “Say What?” activities scaffold primary source analysis, providing the first step for students on their way to more complex activities such as debates or document-based investigations.

Examples:

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