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Tutorials - Developing Guiding Questions: Guiding Students' Analysis of Primary Sources

Meets Content and Skills Objectives as Outlined by State Curriculum Frameworks,
and Develop Higher Order Thinking

Overview | Question Outline | Rationale and Classroom Technique

Question Model:
1. Observation: What do you notice?
2. Contextualization: What do you already know? What do these details
3. interpretation: What does this source suggest about our topic?


As you know, primary sources do not speak for themselves; their meaning and significance becomes clear (or at least visible) and their utility to an historian (or student) becomes evident only after careful analysis and interpretation. To "analyze" any type of primary source is to interrogate the details of a source in order to determine and explain what and how the source can tell you about a topic. Historians must look carefully and completely at their sources, interpret the details therein in light of what is known about the subject, and then make an assessment or draw a conclusion about what the source can and does tell them.

It is only after carefully analyzing and interpreting a source that an historian can use the source as evidence to support an argument or make a claim about a larger historical topic or debate. And when an historian uses a source to support an argument she or he must be explicit about how the source suggests what she or he says it does. That is, an historian must show their audience not only what they know about the source but also how they came to "know" what they do about the source.

Developing a well-thought-out and purposeful set of questions about a primary source you wish to use in your classroom can help direct students toward specific content and skills objectives tied to higher order thinking. Students can be assisted in their efforts to see how primary sources illuminate the past and provide a variety of perspectives on it. They can be guided through the process of information gathering, hypothesizing and making arguments. The skills gained from source analysis are easily transferable.

Well-constructed questions can also encourage students to consider the ways in which primary sources can be used to build and support larger arguments about historical topics, processes or events. Thoughtful questioning also enables students to identify the limitations of various types of sources and experience the calculated/informed guesswork that is part of solid historical research. Finally, guiding students through the analysis of a carefully selected primary source or sources based on well-thought-out questions you have developed is a wonderful way to model for them the way they can approach other primary sources.

Good guiding questions always keep the source at the center of the investigation and constantly push students to draw upon and integrate prior knowledge and personal experience as they work to make sense of the source, determine its power as a window to the past, and consider how it might be used to answer an historical question or illuminate a topic under investigation. Moving between existing scholarship or knowledge and sources and back again is how historians create new knowledge about the past.

Always keep in mind that your intended goals for the source (what you want students to gain from their analysis) should shape the questions you devise. After all, your guiding questions will shape what a source "tells" your students and what historical skills the students develop.

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Question Outline

Certainly, there are many ways to structure the process of moving from a primary source toward historic understanding, but to offer a common starting point for both our discussions and your classroom activities, we suggest a simple, effective outline for developing questions to introduce your students to careful, thoughtful primary source analysis. For planning purposes, questions can be organized into three categories:

1. Observation: What do you notice?
2. Contextualization: What do you already know? What do these details mean/suggest?
3. Interpretation: What does this source suggest about our topic?

This model is designed to help you lead students through an analysis and interpretation of a single source. Given the opportunity to do their own research, or to synthesize sources and topics related to a whole unit or broad classroom theme, students can be guided toward a further step which asks them to make a larger argument or claim about a topic based on the evidence and understandings gleaned from multiple sources.

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Rationale and Classroom Descriptions of this Technique

Again, this is only one model for developing guiding questions that lead students toward content and skills objectives through primary source analysis.

  • "Can be used with a wide variety of primary sources
  • "By starting with basic, descriptive questions rather than questions that ask for either immediate factual right-or-wrong "answers," or complex responses, students of varying skills and abilities can develop confidence in their path toward successfully analyzing a source.
  • "Students' observation is demonstrated to be an important source of "facts" upon which they will develop an analysis or argument.
  • "It can be linked to other types of investigative or critical thinking processes that may already be familiar to students.

This technique is a "building" process that can be likened to building a house. The foundation is observation, the structure and framework is the interpretation/contextualization, and the roof is the final argument. The roof cannot support itself; it relies on the stability of the elements that came before it. Students must be able to support their claims at the argument stage with evidence and information gathered during earlier stages.

Another metaphor for this process is to suggest that your students-as historians-think of themselves like other people who try to find solutions or explanations: detectives or scientists. First, they will gather information through careful, detailed observation of the source ("evidence" or "data" for detectives or scientists). Then, they will try contextualize or understand the meaning of their observations based on what they already know or other evidence they have encountered. This may involve either deductive or inductive reasoning - often it involves both.

1. Observation: What do you notice?

These questions are geared to get students to look (or listen) very closely and to notice details in a fact-gathering quest. Questions in this category get at such issues as
who, what, how many and when and should be specific to the source you are using. Level 1 questions are answerable through looking or listening alone.

Sample Questions:

Type of Source Sample Questions
Portrait of Elias Haskett Derby (1800-1820)
  • What objects do you see in this painting? List them and describe what they are made of.
  • When was this portrait painted?
1910 Salem Census Data for Turner and Derby Streets, Salem, MA
  • What different types of occupations do the individuals listed have?
  • What is the place of birth for each person whose occupation is listed?
Lyrics to Malvina Reynold's song "Little Boxes"(1962)
  • What words repeat in each verse?
  • What are the houses made out of?
  • When was this song written? By whom?
  • What do you picture when you hear these words?
  • Asking students to create outlines, make a sketch, or use a graphic organizer can be useful here, especially if you want students to focus on certain aspects of a source. Most historians create some type of simple categorization/tracking method to make sense of all the data they sort through.
  • Example: If you are looking at a set of song lyrics, you might track repetition or literary/Biblical references, for example. If you are looking at the Declaration of Independence, you might try to track "categories" of complaints. If you are using two artifacts of the same general type but from two different time periods, you might consider tracking similarities and differences.
  • Note: It is a common tendency among students of all ages to try to jump ahead at this point and offer their analysis. This is a good opportunity to recognize the value of the contribution while clarifying the difference between observation and analysis. See section below on "Value of this Technique."

2. Contextualization: What do you already know? What do these details mean or suggest?

Central to source analysis is to comprehend the source within its own context-not within our contemporary one-and, by doing so, try to draw meaning from and assign meaning to a source's details. These questions are at the heart of being able to make some larger meaning out of a particular source or set of sources because they ask students to begin thinking about why certain elements are/might be included and how a source tells us what it tells us and how this source fits into larger historical understandings. These questions try to get students to begin to see the significance of details they observed, and make inferences about why certain elements exist, are absent, or appear the way they do. In other words, they are addressing the "so what" question about the details of a source. Students learn to draw inferences from details and to make meaning out of the same.

Contextualization/Interpretation questions encourage students to combine information they have gathered in the Observation stage of questioning with both their own experiences and their knowledge about the source's historical context. For students just beginning to analyze and interpret sources, you might me careful about separating out contextualization questions from interpretation questions. This is also a point where instructors may add to the classroom knowledge, or assign research tasks as appropriate in areas that students could not be expected to have any experience or knowledge. See "Using Guiding Questions to Teach Research Skills."

Depending on the source under investigation, the goals of the activity or lesson, and the information available, interpretation/contextualization questions can be used to identify bias, assess reliability or suggest the possible meaning or significance of a specific typical (or atypical) element of the source. Contextualization/Interpretation questions often encourage students to use knowledge outside of source observation to suggest possible meanings for details observed. Level 2 questions often require students to think both creatively and analytically. They ask how? and why?

Sample Questions:

Type of Source Sample Questions
Portrait of Elias Haskett Derby (1800-1820)
  • What objects in this portrait do you think belong to Mr. Derby?
  • Keeping the time period in mind, would you describe these objects as fine and expensive, or common and inexpensive?
  • Considering his fine clothing, the map, books, quill pen, and ship, what might be Mr. Derby's profession?
  • Consider the date of this portrait, and the years in which Mr. Derby lived in Salem. What trade was important in this area during these years?
  • Why do you think his portrait was painted?
1910 Salem Census Data for Turner and Derby Streets, Salem, MA
  • What do you think the work and pay was like for those jobs?
  • How does the information about birth help us to understand who these people are? Why would this information be important to the census-takers of 1910?
  • Why do you think so many people living on these streets hold the same types of jobs?
Lyrics to Malvina Reynold's song "Little Boxes"(1962)
  • Why do you think Reynold repeats the words "little houses" over and over? Why not "big houses?"
  • What is significant about the date?
  • How can the date help us understand the meaning and the message of the song?
  • What do you think Reynold's political bias is and why?

3. Interpretation: What does this Source Suggest About our Topic?

At this point, a teacher facilitates the transition to higher order thinking, by encouraging students to demonstrate new knowledge and understanding gained through source analysis. As stated above, to "analyze" a primary source is to look closely at a source so as to be able to determine and explain what the source can tell us about an historical event, problem, period or topic.

Questions here focus on the issue of what the source can tell us about either a specific topic or a larger historical theme, period or issue (be careful not to place too much of a burden on one source) and should ask students to consider the information gleaned from each of the first two sets of questions in order to form a logical hypothesis or argument. In order to answer Level 3 questions students must be able to answer questions at each of the previous levels, since the fruits of those other types of inquiries are critical to being able to take a stand and use primary sources to support it. Helping students to see this as a solid, logical "building" process will not only lead to better analysis, but also a greater sense of confidence when suggesting their hypothesis. Even if their best guess isn't "right," it should be based on solid evidence/material and a logical process that is commendable.

Sample Questions:

Type of Source Sample Questions
Portrait of Elias Haskett Derby (1800-1820)
  • What does this portrait tell us about the importance of China trade entrepreneurs to the people of the Early Republic?
1910 Salem Census Data for Turner and Derby Streets, Salem, MA
  • How would you describe the immigrant population of Salem's waterfront neighborhood in 1910?
  • "What does this source tell us about the role that immigrant workers like these played in industrializing America?
Lyrics to Malvina Reynold's song "Little Boxes"(1962)
  • What do we learn about Cold War economics, population growth, politics, social expectations and change from this song?

To encourage students to make the clear link between the information gathered at Level 1 and the conclusions they are drawing at Level 3, you might consider explicitly asking them to point to the evidence that has helped them come to this conclusion and explain how that evidence suggests to them what they say it does. Doing this also helps students see how evidence can be used to support a thesis statement.

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AMDuda 2006