Examining the Evidence

Exploring vocabulary terms in social studies with primary sources.

By: Jeremiah Clabough, Rebecca Bidwell

The C3 Framework by the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) has changed the dynamics of social studies instruction. The emphasis of standards in this document is for teachers to build students' content-area literacy skills through inquiry-based activities (NCSS, 2013). For social studies, this means that students can analyze a person's arguments. One ideal tool for this type of examination is using primary sources.

In this article, we explore how to integrate primary sources in the middle school social studies classroom. Too many suggested best practices for using primary sources assume that students have the skills needed to analyze primary sources that they often have not yet developed.

The implementation of primary sources needs to begin with the teaching of academic vocabulary terms essential to social studies. In this article, we demonstrate how this can be accomplished with the academic vocabulary terms of corroborate, articulate, and summarize.

What is So Primary About Primary Sources?

Primary sources are remnants from a time period that have been intentionally or accidentally preserved, many of which are text-based primary sources. These include personal correspondences, speeches, and official government documents. An examination of the words in a document can often reveal the author's biases, values, and perspectives.

When working with text-based sources, the teacher needs to design activities that progressively build students' analysis skills. The key is to connect academic vocabulary terms embedded within the standards of the C3 Framework to primary sources.

Academic vocabulary terms focus on key actions and processes used within content-area disciplines (Marzano & Pickering, 2005). For example, citing a primary source allows a social scientist to use evidence to support an argument. In the next sections, we provide three activities for using academic vocabulary terms with primary sources.

Corroborating that AT-ATs Were Used in World War II?

Photoshopped image of AT-ATs in Nazi Germany during World War II.

The essence of the change brought by education reform movements in social studies centers on students working with evidence. Students need to analyze the evidence used by people to determine whether or not their arguments are supported by facts. They should corroborate the claims of an individual because without facts to support an argument a person is simply espousing an opinion.

One activity that gives students experience with corroborating the claims in a primary source is authenticating a photograph. One of the authors obtained the Photoshopped image in the next section at a comic book convention in Louisville. In pairs, students examine this image and discuss its authenticity. They should answer the following questions about this image:

  1. What event is being depicted in the photograph?
  2. Is the photograph authentic? If not, why do you believe the photograph is fake?
  3. What are some resources that you could use to prove this photograph is fake?
  4. What was the purpose for creating this photograph?

After students answer these questions, the teacher guides a class discussion by asking questions that help students to discuss how they corroborated the authenticity of the photograph. Students can obviously point to the fact that a vehicle, AT-AT, seen in a Star Wars film could not be used in World War II. They may also highlight that the technology in the late 1930s and 1940s was not advanced enough to create an AT-AT.

This activity gives students experience with using evidence to corroborate the claims of a primary source. Students draw on evidence from the movie, "The Empire Strikes Back," to point out that vehicles depicted in this film are fictional and therefore could not have been used in World War II. Students need opportunities to explore the accuracy of a person's or source's claims. This activity helps students draw better conclusions about the validity of an argument in a source.

Articulating FDR's Point of View with a Historical Meme

Example of historical meme with an image of FDR from the Library of Congress obtained from www.makeameme.org.

A key skill with standards in current education reform is for students to demonstrate an understanding of point of view. Primary sources provide an avenue for learning this skill. By discerning differences in points of view, students develop their own beliefs about issues and events.

First, the teacher leads a class discussion of the factors leading to Franklin D. Roosevelt's victory during the 1932 presidential election. Students then are paired to examine excerpts from two of FDR's speeches, which can be located using the following link: http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/franklin_roosevelt.php.

The teacher might ask the following questions to scaffold student thinking:

  1. What are some powerful words or phrases FDR uses to express his point of view?
  2. What were the purposes in writing these speeches?

The students record their answers in a graphic organizer to help them capture and analyze evidence from the primary sources about FDR's point of view.

FDR's Point of View Graphic Organizer
Speech Excerpts Conclusions Reasoning

The final step of the activity is for students to create a historical meme. A historical meme uses satire to express a point of view using an image and caption. Students create a historical meme using an image of FDR and a caption with an online meme generator.

The website, www.makeameme.org, is one useful resource teachers and students might use to create a meme. The caption should reflect FDR's perspective in the two documents. An example of a historical meme has been provided in the next section.

Students strengthen their critical thinking skills by expressing a historical figure's point of view by creating a historical meme. The historical meme activity enables students to apply their understanding of FDR's point of view by reflecting it in their selected image and caption. It also allows students to be actively engaged in exploring key topics in our social studies curriculum.

Summarizing One Panel at a Time

We encounter and interact with people who try to persuade or transform our thinking on a range of issues. These influences include special interest groups and politicians trying to gain support as well as companies attempting to market and sell their products.

Students need to be able to capture the essence of a person's or group's arguments. One activity to help students develop the skills to do this is for them to create a storyboard to summarize the contents of a primary source.

Storyboards use words and images to convey a chronological narrative in panels using the same format seen in comic books. The teacher should select a primary source that is rich in content but not too lengthy.

Example storyboard of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address created by Shannon Hamblen.

An ideal text for this activity is Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. The class reads this primary source together with the teacher stopping at set intervals to discuss Lincoln's words. After the class finishes this reading, the teacher guides a class debriefing about its contents. The teacher then provides students with several examples of storyboards so they develop an understanding of the basic format of a storyboard.

Students then construct a storyboard with eight panels to express their understanding of the contents of this primary source. The teacher needs to emphasize that the panels should tell a chronological narrative about Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.

Students can then share their storyboards while the teacher asks them to explain the reasoning behind each panel. Storyboards are an ideal tool to help reluctant readers and ESL students communicate their ideas by using words and images. The flexibility within this activity allows students different ways to summarize the contents of a primary source.


To implement the standards of the C3 Framework, social studies teachers need to begin by helping middle school students understand academic vocabulary terms. An understanding of these terms is critical for fostering students' content-area literacy skills.

By using academic vocabulary terms, students are able to explore deeply the content material in a primary source and develop the ability to think like a social scientist. This level of critical thinking is important for students when analyzing information in order for them to make informed decisions.


Marzano, R. & Pickering, D. (2005). Building academic vocabulary teacher's manual. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

National Council for the Social Studies. (2013). The college, career, and civic life framework (C3) for social studies state standards: Guidance for enhancing the rigor of K–12 civics, economics, geography, and history. Retrieved from http://socialstudies.org/c3

Jeremiah Clabough, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Rebecca Bidwell is a sixth grade social studies teacher at Clay-Chalkville Middle School
in Hoover, Alabama.

Published in AMLE Magazine, April 2017.

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Social StudiesInquiry-based Learning


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