Authentic Lessons for 21st Century Learning

Learning About the Past

Comparing Primary and Secondary Sources

Patricia Turner, Sherri Cornelius | Published: July 23rd, 2021 by Oklahoma Young Scholars/Javits

  • Grade Level Grade Level 2nd, 3rd
  • Subject Subject Social Studies
  • Course Course
  • Time Frame Time Frame 4-5 class periods
  • Duration More 45 minute sessions


In this lesson, students will use primary and secondary sources to learn about history. Students will compare and contrast how primary and secondary sources can offer different views and perceptions of events. Students will demonstrate understanding by creating their own primary and secondary sources.

Essential Question(s)

How can I learn about the past from primary and secondary sources?

Lesson Snapshot


Students are introduced to different sources that tell about toys from the past. A class anchor chart is started to help students make sense of the differences between primary and secondary sources.


Students explore primary and secondary sources by having students look at items that use different modalities to present information about toys from the past. The class anchor chart is added to as students participate in a card sort.


The anchor chart is completed during this part of the lesson. The class adds to the primary source and secondary source examples by taping pictures from the card sort in the appropriate places. If there are items they are not sure about, these are put to the side until later. The class then generates a list of characteristics of primary and secondary sources and the definitions for both sources is created and added to the anchor chart.


Students create their own primary source document from their own personal experience. They then create a secondary source by interviewing a family member about an historical event and recording their interpretation of that event based on the interview.


Students use the documents they created to write a brief explanation of what qualities make each document a primary or secondary source.


  • Lesson Slides (attached)

  • Note Catcher (attached; two copies per page; one copy per student)

  • Chart paper for Anchor Chart

  • Anchor chart example (attached)

  • My Reasons (attached; one per student)

  • Some Toys Still Look Like Fun Secondary Source (attached; one per student)

  • 1887 Catalog Primary Source (attached, one per student)

  • Primary and secondary source cards printed and cut apart

  • Other primary and secondary source examples


Open the attached Lesson Slides. Introduce the essential question on slide 3 and the lesson objectives on slide 4.

Present the following question: How do we know about things that happened a long time ago or in the past? Have students think about this for a few minutes and then share their responses with a classmate. Use the Think-Pair-Share strategy. Be sure to give enough time for the “Think”. Have a few students share some ideas with the whole class.

Introduce the word source by engaging your students in a conversation about the sources shown on slide 5. The items on the slide will come in one at a time as you click on the PPT.

As you scroll through the items, discuss what people could learn from that item.

Some suggested starter questions and statements are listed below:

  • What do you see in the photo?

  • The Wikipedia website has information that tells us about the toy company called Fisher Price. It was started in 1930. What else does it tell us about Fisher Price?

  • What information do you think we would find in this diary?

  • What is the newspaper article telling about?

  • The American Girl book is a biography of the inventor of the American Girl Dolls. What information would we find in this book?

Students should infer from the pictures and discussion that these sources could be used to find out about toys that children played with in the past. The keywords to develop here are the words source and past.


Use slide 6 to show students the example of a primary source and have the students discuss what they notice about the 1887 toy catalog page. What can we learn about toys from this page? What does it tell us about the people of that time? Consider using the Collective Brain Dump strategy to gather student responses.

Introduce the term primary source. Add primary source to your word wall and tape a copy of the catalog picture to the example part of the Anchor chart.

Display slide 7 to show students the secondary source and pass out the Some Toys Still Look Like Fun Secondary Source handout. Read the story together. Continue with the “Collective Brain Dump” as students share what they learned from the story and what they notice about how it is written. Now address the question: Where did Beth Brindle find the information she used to write this story? Go back to the story and point out the sources that were cited: Encyclopedia Britannica and Chudacoff. If you click on the links they will take you directly to the sources.

Introduce the word secondary source. Add secondary source to your word wall and tape a copy of the story to the example part of the Anchor chart.

Explore Primary and Secondary sources by having students using the Card Sort strategy to divide the attached Card Sort into two groups. Display slide 8.

As you monitor students, look to see how students are sorting and ask them guiding questions to help them make more detailed observations. Some suggested questions are:

  • What do you observe in the pictures? What are the images, who are the people, what are the objects?

  • Are there any words or numbers on the images?

  • What do you think is the importance of these images, words, numbers, and symbols?

  • What do you think is happening?

  • Why would someone take this picture?

Using a modified version of the “Think, Pair, Share” strategy, have students explain to a nearby group or partner why they sorted the cards the way they did.


Display slide 9. Pull the class together for a class discussion and to work on the Anchor Chart.

Ask a few students to share what the other students told them about their card sort. Let this lead to the following questions.

Discussion Questions:

  • How do primary and secondary sources differ?

  • What makes a primary source?

  • How is that different than a secondary source?

Have students go back to their card sorts to see if there are any items they still have questions about. Have students make changes to their card sort if needed, and then have students explain to their partners how primary and secondary sources are different.

Display slide 10. Check student understanding using the Muddiest Point instructional strategy. Use this to determine if students are ready for the Extend section or if the material on slide 11 should be reviewed again.


Students create their own primary resource from their own personal experiences. This can be a diary entry, letter, map, etc. Students are making the connection that a primary source is from someone with actual knowledge of an event or place.

You may want to model this to your students by showing them a primary document you created. Display slide 12 and go over the checklist below to help them get started.

  • What am I making?

  • Are you writing a letter about something that happened to you?

  • Are you writing a diary entry for a day or specific time?

  • Are you making a map of something from what you see?

  • Include only things you have seen, heard or experience yourself.

  • Include date, place, time , as much specific information as possible

Display slide 13. When modeling the creation of the secondary source document, consider interviewing another adult in your building by asking them the question: What is the most significant historical event that you remember? Create the secondary source together as a class. This interview could also be shown to the students as a video using Flipgrid or another video app. Keep it concise so the students obtain a clear idea of what they are to do.

Display slide 14 and pass out the Note Catcher. Have students share their primary documents with each other in small groups (2-4 students). Have students write down one thing they learned from each person’s primary document.

Repeat this process when the students bring back their secondary source documents. Hopefully the students will find these interesting and fun.

After students have finished sharing in small groups, display slide 15 and have a group discussion about the essential question. How can I learn about the past from primary and secondary sources?

Ask students if there is anything else they would like to add or change on the class Anchor chart.


Students use their primary and secondary documents they created for this evaluation. Display slide 16. Using notebook paper or the attached My Reasons handout, have students write a brief explanation of what makes their first document a primary source as well as why the second document they made is a secondary source. The class anchor chart can be an available resource for students.

Students could also do this verbally or using a Flip/video option.