Have you ever been called in to teach History when it is not your teaching subject or your teaching strength?  I know that in my experience as a child who was not educated in an Australian Primary School I missed a lot of Australian history content and it was always an area of weakness that I needed to build on.  I had to accept the challenge and take on learning about our nation’s history from all sources.  I learned so much, but mostly I learned that it was essential to explore ALL sources of information- primary and secondary. 

It is so vital for our students to be taught this.  Don’t take for granted what may be published in a history text book, primary sources are essential to consider when teaching or understanding History to our students.   

Using Primary Sources 

Primary sources are the raw materials of history — original documents and objects which were created at the time under study. They are different from secondary sources, accounts or interpretations of events created by someone without firsthand experience. 

Examining primary sources gives students a powerful sense of history and the complexity of the past. Helping students analyze primary sources can also guide them toward higher-order thinking and better critical thinking and analysis skills. 

Why Use Primary Sources? 

Primary sources provide a window into the past—unfiltered access to the record of artistic, social, scientific and political thought and achievement during the specific period under study, produced by people who lived during that period. 

Bringing young people into close contact with these unique, often profoundly personal, documents and objects can give them a very real sense of what it was like to be alive during a long-past era. 

1. Engage students 

  • Primary sources help students relate in a personal way to events of the past and promote a deeper understanding of history as a series of human events. 

  • Because primary sources are snippets of history, they encourage students to seek additional evidence through research. 

  • First-person accounts of events help make them more real, fostering active reading and response. 

2. Develop critical thinking skills 

  • Many state standards support teaching with primary sources, which require students to be both critical and analytical as they read and examine documents and objects. 

  • Primary sources are often incomplete and have little context. Students must use prior knowledge and work with multiple primary sources to find patterns. 

  • In analyzing primary sources, students move from concrete observations and facts to questioning and making inferences about the materials. 

  • Questions of creator bias, purpose, and point of view may challenge students’ assumptions. 

3. Construct knowledge 

  • Inquiry into primary sources encourages students to wrestle with contradictions and compare multiple sources that represent differing points of view, confronting the complexity of the past. 

  • Students construct knowledge as they form reasoned conclusions, base their conclusions on evidence, and connect primary sources to the context in which they were created, synthesizing information from multiple sources. 

  • Integrating what they glean from comparing primary sources with what they already know, and what they learn from research, allows students to construct content knowledge and deepen understanding. 

Some examples of using Primary sources to teach history: 

  • The diary of Anne Frank 

  • Indigenous stories that have been told throughout the generations 

  • Personal letters written during war time 

  • The Diary of George Worgan- the surgeon on the Sirius (a ship in the first fleet) 

  • Aboriginal rock art from the Ngunnawal people of the ACT 

  • Letters 

  • Speeches 

  • Tombstones  

  • Paintings 

  • Film 

Building Historical Narrative using sources © State of New South Wales, Department of Education and Communities, 2014. This PDF has some incredible links to primary resources for teaching History to both primary and secondary students. 

The State Library of NSW has a wonderful guide for Primary teachers using the primary sources of information they have on display. Click here to access.

For an American site that has some good sources, click here.

Click here to have access to the major source of Primary sources for Australia and New Zealand History primary teachers.

For ANZAC day you cannot go past this incredible list of downloadable resources. Click here to download.

Scootle is always a wonderful starting point for any teacher to use for researching material. This page on analysis of resources has been a helpful reference for me in tutoring a Year 9 student understanding that the reliability and usefulness of a source depends on the questions asked of it (for example, an account may be one-sided; however, it may still be useful in revealing past prevailing attitudes).

Interested in completing a course on teaching History in High School? Then why not join the Relief Teacher Association and access our PD library. Click here to access the course “Years 7-10 History Activities and Strategies”.