Learning about primary and secondary sources is an essential part of social studies – yet most curriculums only touch on this subject before moving on to the next topic! Understanding types of sources and how they differ is a key element to understanding people and events from the past. This knowledge helps students think critically about the materials they read, in turn making them more informed citizens – the whole point of social studies!
Here are a few things I’ve done over the years to make sure my students understand the difference between primary and secondary sources:
Provide Clear Definitions
The easiest way for students to remember the difference between primary and secondary sources is to make sure they know that primary sources were created at the time of the event, while secondary sources are created about the event. Another way to think about it: primary sources are used to create secondary sources. For example:
- A news article from 1912 about the sinking of the Titanic is a primary source
- The 1997 movie Titanic is a secondary source. However, the writers of the script relied on primary sources to provide accuracy to the script.
Another example that may help your students differentiate between two types of sources is comparing and contrasting autobiographies with biographies. While both can be written about one subject an autobiography is a primary source (it was written BY the subject) while a biography (which was written ABOUT the subject) is a secondary source.
Put Primary and Secondary Sources to Work
Like any other subject, real life examples are worth their weight in gold. One place to look would be you classroom or school library. Have students go on a scavenger hunt looking for primary and secondary sources. Bonus points if they find one of each about the same subject! Another idea is to use a website such as the National Archives to search for primary sources related to topics you are currently studying in class (teacher tip: ALWAYS preview resources before showing them to the class). Videos (for example, the “I Have a Dream” speech) can be a particularly effective way for students to grasp the importance of primary sources.
A poster display with examples of sources will help students remember and understand the differences between the two. You could even have students add examples to the display as they find them throughout the school year!
You can click on the picture to grab a free poster set featuring the most commonly used primary and secondary sources. The set also includes 4 “Think About It” questions, which could be used for journal prompts or for class discussion! This would be a great ongoing display in your classroom – imagine all the source examples they could find!