Working with Primary and Secondary Sources
Lesson Plan - Academic Skills

Skill Area: Researching
Subject: Social Studies, English Language Arts
Learning Objectives: In this lesson, students will learn about important distinctions between primary and secondary sources, as well as how each source type can contribute to their own research projects.

Materials Needed

Video tutorial: "Using Primary and Secondary Sources," available for students in the Academic Success Corner of your ABC-CLIO database.

View Handout


Provided handout with excerpts and exercises (online or hard copy)

Instructional Procedure

Day 1:

To kick off the activity, engage students in an informal class discussion about primary and secondary sources, focusing on their current understanding of the terms. (Students often possess an instinctual knowledge about the difference between the two, based on the words "primary" and "secondary" alone.) To guide the dialogue, consider displaying two sources for students to consider as an illustration; for example, an image of a famous work of art (primary) next to an art critic's essay the work (secondary).

Then, have the class watch the video tutorial "Using Primary and Secondary Sources" to see if any additional insights arise.

After the discussion and viewing, assign the three-part activity. (Note: the third part of the activity sequence can dovetail with an upcoming course-specific research project.)

In Exercise 1, students examine a list of sources within the context of a hypothetical research topic: historical and current interpretations of the First Amendment (in particular, the concept of freedom of the press). Working independently or in groups, students classify each provided source as either primary or secondary, explaining their answers.

Outcome of Day 1: Students understand the fundamental definitions of (and differences between) primary and secondary sources.

Day 2:

Exercise 2 can be completed either as homework, or as an in-class activity. Students are given another assignment scenario, related to the first: a study of censorship. This time, students are given a selection of primary and secondary sources relating to the overall subject, and a list of topic sentences/claims that might be part of an essay on the topic. Students choose one source from the collection, link it to the topic sentence, identify the source as primary or secondary, and explain why they feel the source can provide effective support for the statement itself.

After completing the exercise on their own, students can compare and discuss their results in class to discover the similar and different ways they responded to the source types.

Outcome of Day 2: Students gain greater understanding of how primary and secondary sources serve a written discourse and the different types of conclusions that can be drawn from them.

Day 3:

Exercise 3 can either be conducted immediately after the first two tasks, or can be held on deck until you're ready to move students towards a research assignment specific to the content of the class. In this exercise, students seek out a selection of both primary and secondary sources as part of their preliminary research. Students use the provided handout to classify and summarize the sources, as well as consider how they may contribute to the project as it moves from the brainstorming to the drafting stage.

Outcome of Day 3: Students emerge with a stronger understanding of how different types of sources can both contribute to key foundational knowledge and strengthen claims they wish to make in their own work.


Students can work through the exercises alone or in collaboration, and the full lesson can be conducted either in the classroom, in an online setting, or a combination of both.


Students will be assessed on their ability to:

  • Demonstrate an understanding of the differences between primary and secondary sources
  • Draw logical connections between topic sentences/claim statements and evidence found in outside sources
  • Apply acquired knowledge to independent research

Additional Resources

Abilock, Debbie. "Adding Friction. Is This a Primary Source?" Library Media Connection, October 2013.

Bober, Tom. "Discover Great Primary Sources with" School Library Connection, November 2016.

Lamb, Annette. "Photos, Maps, and More: Graphic Inquiry and Primary Sources in the School Library." School Library Connection, November 2016.

Morris, Rebecca J. "Fostering Deeper Understanding with Primary Sources." School Library Connection, November 2016.

Schmidt, Randell K., Emilia N. Giordano, and Geoffrey M. Schmidt, Foreword by Carol C. Kuhlthau. A Guided Inquiry Approach to Teaching the Humanities Research Project. Libraries Unlimited, 2015.

Seth Taylor
Seth Taylor, MFA, has 20 years of experience in higher education as a teacher, administrator and professional development specialist. He has taught graduate and undergraduate courses in Rhetoric, Composition and Research Methodology San Diego State University, Colorado State University, and the University of Redlands.

MLA Citation

Taylor, Seth. "Working with Primary and Secondary Sources." ABC-CLIO Solutions, ABC-CLIO, 2023, Accessed 28 Jan. 2023.

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