Improving Classroom Instruction: Understanding the Developmental Nature of Analyzing Primary Sources

Authentic and constructive learning experiences that include analysis of primary source documents are necessary elements of effective social studies teaching (Bailyn, 1994; Leinhardt, Stainton, & Virji, 1994; Wineburg & Wilson, 1991; Young & Leinhardt, 1998). This study examines the abilities of 70 fifth and seventh grade students to complete individual and multiple primary source document analyses based on their current background knowledge. Three researchers coded by grade, level of response (content), and type of processing (analysis of written discourse connectors and organization of written discourse) the completed document analysis tool responses. Rather than relying on others to interpret history for them, findings indicate that engaging students with primary source documents exercises the critical-thinking skills needed to analyze and interpret historical documents. However, this can be a very challenging task for students at this level. After connecting the study’s results to current research, the article concludes with a set of practical suggestions.

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Published in Research in Middle Level Education Online, 2007