Integrating Primary Sources into Language Arts Lessons

Although primary sources are most associated with teaching social studies, integrating them into language arts lessons will help students develop a deeper understanding of the content. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, primary sources are original materials that haven’t been filtered through interpretation. These could be photographs, manuscripts, recordings, interviews, newspaper clippings, or any other firsthand accounts from a particular time or event.

integrate primary sources into language arts

Primary sources are unique tools that can bring history to life and promote critical thinking! However, their integration in the classroom isn’t always straightforward, especially when it comes to language arts lessons. That’s why today, I’m shining a spotlight on this very topic!

By pairing primary sources with the magic of mentor texts we’re opening a window into the past for our students to peek through AND interact with. This approach not only helps students better understand the material, but also elevates their critical thinking and analytical skills.

Picture Books and Primary Sources: The Perfect Pair

Below, I’m going to share four outstanding mentor texts that offer the perfect opportunity to weave primary sources into your lessons. These are all picture books that offer a look into the past.

Using these books alongside primary sources is a great way to show students that the authors (and illustrators) had to spend some time studying and learning from primary sources in order to make sure their books were accurate!

And, since primary sources allow students to play historian, they will be improving their critical thinking skills and fostering a deeper understanding of the topic at hand.

Psst! Make sure to grab the free download at the end of this post to help your students analyze any political cartoon!

The Oldest Student

The Oldest Student by Rita Lorraine Hubbard is a powerful book that narrates the tale of Mary Walker learning to read at 116. Yes, 116!

To make this story even more engaging, you can use primary source images from Chattanooga’s Great Flood, an event that deeply impacted Mary. Share the photographs with students and encourage them to pore over the details. Have students note their observations and answer the 5 W’s. Then, provide students with a secondhand source (an article, for example) that details the events of the flood. Allow them to compare what they were able to learn from the images that weren’t in the article, and vice versa.

use primary sources about the Chattanooga Flood paired with The Oldest Student

This activity will not only give them a chance to analyze these primary source photographs, but it will also highlight the importance of literacy and the limitations of understanding events through images alone, as exemplified by Mary Walker in the book.

Dinosaur Lady

I never had a student who didn’t love learning a bit about dinosaurs!

Dinosaur Lady by Linda Skeers is a narrative nonfiction book that uncovers the life of Mary Anning, a fossil collector and paleontologist. To integrate primary sources with this mentor text, you can have your students compare the illustration of the ichthyosaurus skull in the book to Mary Anning’s original sketch.

use primary sources paired with The Dinosaur Lady

This activity helps students see the way the illustrator, Marta Álvarez Miguéns, used primary sources to ensure the accuracy of the pictures in this book. And of course, it gives students a peek into the past, too!

Her Right Foot

Her Right Foot, written by Dave Eggers and illustrated by Shawn Harris, is an engaging nonfiction picture book that presents an interesting perspective on a universally recognized symbol of freedom and democracy: the Statue of Liberty. The book begins by presenting well-known facts about the Statue of Liberty. The author talks about her creation, the design process by Bartholdi, and how the statue was shipped from France to the United States.

compare photographs of the construction of the Statue of Liberty with information learned in Her Right Foot

After reading the first half of the book, it’s the perfect time to share primary source images depicting the different stages of the Statue of Liberty’s construction. This is a great way to show students the accuracy and depth of information in this mentor text reflect thorough research involving primary sources such as historical documents, photographs, and firsthand accounts from the time period.

Elizabeth Started All The Trouble

Doreen Rappaport’s book, Elizabeth Started All The Trouble, is a fantastic introduction to the women’s suffrage movement. There are so many options of primary sources to analyze for this time period that will not only give students a glimpse into the history of women’s rights but also promote their critical thinking abilities.

Remember, back in the early 1900s, before social media and the internet, public opinion was primarily shared through newspapers and pamphlets. As you can imagine, there are many documents and cartoons from this time period both for and against women’s suffrage rights.

comparing opinions of the past with primary sources

Share both pro- and anti-suffrage sources and allow students to make observations and discuss what they notice about them. Be sure to point out exaggerated elements (a common feature in political cartoons), and help students infer the illustrator’s message of any images you are looking at by looking beyond the surface of the image, noting details like facial expressions or words within the image.

You can use the guiding activity that I’m offering for free below to help them do all of those things!

Elizabeth Cady Stanton actually rewrote the Declaration of Independence to share the opinions of women who wanted equal rights. Another great way to tie in primary sources would be to provide students a copy of each of the Declarations and have students compare line by line/word by word to find where changes were made.

Since some of the language is difficult to understand at their age, you’ll want to walk them through some of the “harder” language, but it is likely that they will still be able to identify why Elizabeth Cady Stanton made the changes she did and her points/reasoning in doing so.

You can easily see, by pairing this mentor text with firsthand documents, students will have not only understood the varied perspectives during this period in history but also honed their abilities to analyze and interpret primary sources.

use a variety of primary sources with Elizabeth Started All the Trouble

Weaving primary sources into your lessons with these mentor texts provides an enriching, engaging learning experience. You can see just from these few examples how easily you can empower students to analyze, ask questions, and dive into history headfirst with primary sources.

Looking for more information about teaching with picture books?

Check out the site library all about maximizing your time using mentor texts!