Lesson: Primary & Secondary Sources


Students will define a primary and secondary source and label examples of each.



  • Examples of primary and secondary source materials that relate to one of your family stories you have shared with the class already
  • Examples of random primary and secondary source materials (use ones from your own family, or contact a member of your local historical society or a town historian to bring in samples of each
  • A listing of examples of primary sources and secondary sources (see attached)



Primary source

Secondary source


Most of the vocabulary describing different types of sources, as are listed on the handout, were familiar to students. Some of the words we did have to talk about were:









  • Write the word “Primary” on one piece of paper and “Secondary” on another piece and post each where students can see them (or write on whiteboard/smartboard.
  • Explain that though they may not know exactly what these words mean yet, they are words that history researchers and detectives use all the time. Junior high and high school students need to know these words when they are doing research, and often those students have trouble knowing the difference between the two, so this will be a great head start to learning the difference.
  • Ask student what comes to mind when they hear the word “Primary” and “Secondary” and write their associations next to each word. (When we piloted this lesson, students immediately offered that “primary” made them think of “prime”, “top”, “best” and “secondary” made them think of “second”, “number 2”.
  • The teacher then shared that primary sources are considered the top, the best sources because they relate to the same time of the subject being studied, and secondary sources are about the same subject being studied, but from a later time. We also used the phrases that a primary source is ‘”first hand” info and a secondary source is “second hand” info.  



  1. Label Primary/Secondary Sources in a previously known story:

Our example: Several days earlier, the classroom teacher had shared a story from her own family history with the class.  The story told how her mom, at age 8, had met Bette Davis back in 1954.  The actress, who was vacationing in her mom’s home town, came to their home to receive a telegram that her mom’s grandfather had received in his job at the railroad station. She stayed for tea in their small home Bette Davis visited with them and asked the little girl to come and sit with her. Soon after the teacher shared the story as she had heard it, her mom was able to come in and tell the story from her perspective, and the students were able to ask her questions.

We had written “Mrs. Baker tells the story of how her mom met Bette Davis” on one paper and “Mrs. Morrill tells the story of how she met Bette Davis.” We asked students which was an example of a primary source and which was a secondary source, and then discussed why they made their choices, and then put these papers next to the appropriate “Primary Source” or “Secondary Source” headings on the board.


  1. More practice with labeling Primary /Secondary sources in that same known story:

The family had no artifacts from this story—no photo of the family at the time, no teacup, no photo of the house.  But we had googled the name of the town and Bette Davis, and emailed the Historical Society in the town, and had printed out some photos and printed material that we could ask the students to identify as primary or secondary sources. We found 1954 publicity and family photos of Bette Davis, photos of the railroad station in town, a map of the town, a postcard of the hotel where Davis had stayed, and articles about Bette Davis’ work and vacationing in the state. We passed these out to the students, and one at a time they classified their item as either primary or secondary and told how they made their decision.


  1. Still more practice exploring Primary and Secondary sources


We had all the students sit around a large round table where we had set out all the examples of primary and secondary sources we had gathered from our own family history and other research, and also from the local historical society. (Many were in archival sleeves for protection.) We shared the handout of the list of examples primary sources, with the list of secondary sources on the reverse, but stressed that the list could be pages and pages long; these were just examples.


Students then picked an item that they were interested in and had a few minutes to look it over and try to determine what it was, and then think about whether what they were holding was a primary or secondary source.  They then shared what they had selected and we all discussed their decisions of primary/secondary.


Students did find reading old handwriting challenging, but they were able to help each other to decipher what things said and what they were.  We had some very interesting discussions about some items that had both primary and secondary sources—one example was a book that was a traditional history book, but with personal recollections.  Others fell into a gray area; one could argue that it was a secondary source, but on the other hand could be considered a primary source, such as a grandmother’s recipe written down by her granddaughter. We showed how a photocopy is a primary source, even though the real item (an old map, in one case) has a more authentic look. We discussed that transcriptions can really help make a document easier to read, and can be called primary sources, but that you should note that it was a transcription, not the original.



Ten items were selected from the random collection of primary/secondary sources; ones that the students had not yet discussed. Students numbered their papers 1-10 and wrote either “P” (primary) or “S” (secondary) on their paper as the teacher held up an item and briefly stated some facts about it, for example: “This is a newspaper article written in 1976 about how in 1876 the town of Glover applied to have the Statue of Liberty be erected in Glover.”


The students did very well on this evaluation; many had 100%, the lowest score was 70%. We were amazed at how quickly and easily they understood the difference between primary and secondary sources.