Top Six Reasons to Explore! Primary Sources



Did you know Explore! Primary Sources has over 250 original text and audio resources? Presented in an online lesson format with historical context and comprehension questions, these primary sources encourage active reading and analysis. The collection, provided for free along with all of the resources from Curriculum Pathways, stretches across four centuries. It includes founding documents, amendments to the U.S. Constitution, speeches, letters, patriotic songs, personal letters, Oval Office conversations, and more.

Here are six good reasons to use it!

  1. Wait a minute. Just to be clear, what is a primary source??? Primary sources are original documents, images, recordings, or videos. They were created during the time period you are studying by people who either experienced events firsthand or lived through them. So they differ from textbooks, which typically summarize someone else’s interpretation of an event. Primary sources are original texts open for YOUR interpretation.

According to the National Center for History in Schools:

When we ask students to work with and learn from primary sources, we transform them into historians. Rather than passively receiving information from a teacher or textbook, students engage in the activities of historians — making sense of the stories, events, and ideas of the past through document analysis.

  1. Read, Think, Analyze.  It is still all about climbing the ladder on Bloom’s Taxonomy, and there’s no better way engage those high-level thinking skills than to tackle a primary source.
  2. Primary sources require active reading. Students apply knowledge of the historical context to gain perspective on the writer’s point of view and begin reading to uncover evidence. Students become detectives gathering evidence to obtain a clearer picture of the period they are investigating.
  3. Primary sources can be multimedia. Reading is only one important way to enjoy primary sources. You can also listen to them! Speeches, radio broadcasts, patriotic songs, Oval Office conversations – these are all primary sources best consumed as audio! Hearing John F. Kennedy's voice gives you information that a transcript of a conversation cannot convey. Active listening is just as important as active reading.

Students can assess the impact of the rapid-fire dialogue between two distinct dialects: a southern governor and a New England-born president. Temperatures rise as they discuss integration at Ole Miss in this 1962 Oval Office telephone conversation.

This JFK document - including the audio recording - is part of the Explore! Primary Sources repository.


  1. Don't forget elementary grade students. It is never too soon for K-5 students to appreciate the Pledge of Allegiance or to consider the historical context and answer online comprehension questions as they explore the patriotic images Emma Lazarus created in her poem, "The New Colossus."

  1. Start practicing for the SAT this spring. The SAT's evidence-based reading section focuses on primary-source document analysis. According to College Board: Redesigned SAT:

For every passage students read, there will be at least one question asking them to select a quote from the text that best supports the answer they have chosen in response to the preceding question. Some passages will be paired with informational graphics, and students will be asked to integrate the information conveyed through each in order to find the best answer.

The SAT Reading sections include at least one primary-source document from American History. Founding Documents like Federalist Papers or The Declaration of Independence are particular favorites. Hamilton and Jefferson are back!

Explore! Primary Sources is a great resource for helping students read and interpret primary sources. Check out this text and audio clip of  Barbara Jordan's famous 1974 speech to Congress, highlighted in the College Board sample question.

Many of our other history, civics, and economics resources include primary-source documents—and primary-source document analysis! Here are just a few:

FDR and the New Deal
Lincoln and the Civil War
Reformation: Luther's Challenge to the Church
Ancient Egypt: The Social Pyramid
Freedom of Speech in School
The Minimum Wage



About Author

Molly Farrow

Molly Farrow taught high school history for 11 years in Wake County and Durham County. She also taught at the Taipei American School in Taiwan. She received a M.A.T. degree from the University of North Carolina and a B.S. degree in Political Science from Wake Forest University. Outside work, she enjoys traveling and spending time with her family and their dog, Dante.

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