Activities for Working with Primary Source Documents

The Primary Source Learning offers a list of primary source-related instruction strategies.

The National Archives and Records Administration introduces myriad strategies for use with primary sources in this informational sheet. In it, they recommend and offer suggestions for using primary sources in the following ways: a focus activity, brainstorming activity, visualization exercise, project inspiration, dramatic presentation activity, writing activity, listening activity, creating a documentary, cross-curricular activity, current events activity (what is past is prologue), drawing connections activity, integrating geography activity, small group hypothesis activity, self-reflective exercise, and assessment.
Using Primary Source Sets

To identify groups of primary sources used for teaching specific content and developing inquiry projects, visit

Analyzing Primary Sources

There are excellent resources for having students analyze a variety of primary source types (e.g., cartoons, photographs, audio recordings, art). Visit
"Found Poems"

Have students work with a single teacher-selected primary source document. Students will review the document highlighting words that are important to them. They then cut out twenty of those words (of their choosing) that are the most meaningful for them. They then make a poem by arranging these words into their own creation.
Note: You may use the primary source set within the Community Center called "Found Poems" for this activity.
Primary Source Overviews

Create a page-long overview including basic information about specific artifacts. Information may include:

  • “Author’s Point of View”
  • “Resource Overview"
  • "What Do You See?”
  • “Thinking about the Picture” (e.g., suggestions for seeking more information, links, other resources, provide assignments for working with the resource)
  • “Using Your Imagination” (e.g., Ask questions like “What would happen if…? “Would it be better if…?” and offer suggested strategies for answering the questions such as creating a timeline)

Basically, provide detailed educator-friendly data about given artifacts in a primary source set. Note, this idea is based on the EduPress sets titled "Exploring Primary Sources."


Sort It Out

Provide artifacts and have students start with a question (e.g., “How have resources and materials changed the way we live and travel?”). Using that question, have students separate them into a pre-defined number of categories. Students have to determine category names and subcategories within the main categories and fit each artifact into their self-selected categories.


Scavenger Hunt

Ask students to engage in a scavenger hunt where they simply seek the types of resources available in the collection(s). Examples would include newspapers, pictures, videos, statistics, broadsides.


Life in a Box

Create a packet of six artifacts relating to the life of one individual. The items should be scaffolded in a method leading from more to less obscure and each should be numbered from one to six. Pass around each artifact one time at a time. Have students try to determine the name of the person in the box in the least number of artifacts. When done, have students write how each item relates to the person on the box.


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