Help Students Learn to Use Primary Sources

Examining the Evidence: Seven Strategies for Teaching with Primary Sources
By Kathleen Thompson and Hilary Mac Austin
(Maupin House Publishing, 2014 – Learn more)

nicole c miller on richardson plnReviewed by Nicole C. Miller

When I saw Examining the Evidence: Seven Strategies for Teaching with Primary Sources by Hilary Mac Austin and Kathleen Thompson on the list of choices for review, I immediately jumped on the opportunity. My current work with another teacher educator on a Teaching with Primary Sources grant from the Library of Congress and my background as a former social studies teacher initiated my interest.

Not just for the Social Studies teacher

saving the evidence miller nExamining the Evidence focuses on the use of primary sources for teaching and learning, with a significant emphasis on the use of visual sources which are particularly accessible to elementary aged and middle level children.

In order to help teachers and students examine primary sources successfully, the authors use a “historical thinking” framework as their foundation. While this might appear to make the text limited in use for non-social studies teachers, this book has a place on the shelf of a much larger audience of educators.

The research-related skills explored and explained in this text are skills that are not only threaded throughout the ELA Common Core Standards, but are ones necessary for creating capable and critical citizens. In today’s society, we are bombarded with visual information that influences our thinking on significant topics, from war to the job crisis. In order to be effective citizens, we need to be able to critically examine these visuals to understand what they are demonstrating, including the potential for bias or incomplete information.

The authors also effectively argue that emotion is an important hook to student engagement. We can leverage visceral reactions to visual and authentic voices in the classroom by using the strategies presented not only to augment the development of thinking, visual, and other literacy skills, but to better engage our students.

Examining the evidence

The core foundation of this text relies on the thinking-like-a-historian framework discussed in the research by Sam Wineburg – a framework that is also highly aligned to the CCSS goal of examining and providing evidence. Three key skills important to the process of thinking like a historian focus on key heuristics used by historians: contextualization, sourcing, and corroboration.

Contextualization is the process whereby primary sources are placed into the temporal and conditional context within which they occurred. Sourcing is the examination of the origin of a text or other primary source. Sourcing is done in order to recognize that historical documents are interpretations of events. Corroboration is the process of comparing multiple sources of information in order to determine the reliability or potential bias of a source.


The authors present seven strategies to engage with primary sources that are related to these heuristics, but are easily understood and digestible for students and teachers. Additionally, each strategy is aligned to specific Common Core State Standards. The seven strategies are as follows:

  • Strategy 1: Decide what you are looking at.
  • Strategy 2: Determine the purpose and audience.
  • Strategy 3: Look for bias.
  • Strategy 4: Examine closely the source itself.
  • Strategy 5: Find more information.
  • Strategy 6: Consider your own role in the interaction.
  • Strategy 7: Compare a variety of sources.

In addition to the strategies addressed, the text provides some basic understanding of primary versus secondary sources, the role of primary sources in the world around us, and suggestions on applying the strategies, as well as supports for locating primary sources.

Applying the strategies and other text resources

Austin and Thompson provide additional guidance on how to apply the strategies in concert with one another. While the strategies are identified and discussed individually, they often can be used more effectively in conjunction with one another. In the discussion of applying the strategies presented, the authors extend their work to discuss how to use multiple strategies through various primary source examples including artifacts, images, texts, and primary source sets.

The authors also provide guidance on locating primary sources, giving a multitude of online options to examine. One that I particularly appreciate is the Library of Congress website for teachers. It has a search tool that provides for searches based on Common Core and state standards and by grade level. While it is not perfect, it is a great starting point and resource for teachers interested in teaching with primary sources.

Final thoughts

With a foreword by Sam Wineburg, this book gained instant credibility. The authors, Austin and Thompson, also share their personal backgrounds which include significant experience using, teaching with, and writing about primary sources.

I can gladly recommend this book for teachers in grades K-8. The text is well-organized and accessible. At the end of each chapter the authors provide “Things to Think About” to help the reader extend and deepen their thinking about the given chapter. In some chapters, the authors also provide a “just for fun” section which adds levity and interest.

Dr. Nicole C. Miller is a faculty member in the Department of Curriculum, Instruction, and Special Education at Mississippi State University. She previously worked as a social studies and educational technology teacher/coordinator at a Los Angeles middle school. Her current research interests include middle level teacher preparation, teaching with primary sources, and technology integration, including the use of technology to support teacher learning.


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1 Response

  1. For loads of curated sets of Library of Congress primary sources and teaching strategies for using them, check out the TPS-Barat Primary Source Nexus teaching resource blog:

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