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5 Strategies to Meet Common Core State Standards Using Primary Sources


photograph of the dust bowl

Example of an image for classroom use from the Library of Congress

Common Core State Standards, multiple subjects, assessments, and not enough time…sound familiar? Teaching with primary sources is a great way to do it all!

Primary sources are documents or physical objects that were present during the event you are studying: pictures, audio recordings, written documents, or even the physical object itself, such as an actual tool used during the event. Primary sources make lessons come alive while also helping you address Common Core State Standards.

Here are 5 strategies to meet Common Core State Standards with primary sources.

Note that these strategies are presented in the context of a grade 5 unit on The Dust Bowl.

1) Analyzing Visual Images

The Library of Congress has a selection of images for classroom use that will fascinate students and spark their imagination. A student worksheet includes a guide that will focus questioning:

  • Why do you think this image was created?
  • If this person could talk to you, what would he or she say?
  • What does this picture make you wonder about?

Meets Common Core State Standards:

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.5.2 Summarize information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.5.3 Summarize the points a speaker makes and explain how each claim is supported by reasons and evidence.

image of teacher's guide from library of congress

2) Analyzing Documents

The Library of Congress Teacher’s Guide includes historical background information and suggested teacher activities such as analyzing authentic song lyrics written during the Dust Bowl. A National Archives worksheet asks compelling questions about primary documents.

Meets Common Core State Standards:

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.5.1 Quote accurately from a text when explaining what the text says explicitly and when drawing inferences from the text.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.5.2 Determine two or more main ideas of a text and explain how they are supported by key details; summarize the text.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.5.3 Explain the relationships or interactions between two or more individuals, events, ideas, or concepts in a historical, scientific, or technical text based on specific information in the text.

3) Audio Recordings – Similarities and Differences

After reading song lyrics, students can actually listen to an immigrant singing her own composition describing the Dust Bowl. Ask students:

  • How is listening to a song different from or similar to reading lyrics?
  • Is there any difference between listening to a song written by the person who wrote it rather than a professional recording artist?
  • How is reading a diary different from or similar to hearing a song?

 Meets Common Core State Standards:

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.5.6 Analyze multiple accounts of the same event or topic, noting important similarities and differences in the point of view they represent.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.5.7 Draw on information from multiple print or digital sources, demonstrating the ability to locate an answer to a question quickly or to solve a problem efficiently.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.5.8 Explain how an author uses reasons and evidence to support particular points in a text, identifying which reasons and evidence support which point(s).

4) Compare and Contrast Primary Sources and Secondary Sources

After examining both primary and secondary sources conduct a compare and contrast activity.

Meets Common Core State Standards:

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.5.5 Compare and contrast the overall structure (e.g., chronology, comparison, cause/effect, problem/solution) of events, ideas, concepts, or information in two or more texts.

5) Compose a Narrative

Personal narratives might include: a diary entry of a person selected from a Dust Bowl image, students’ own diary entries if they had lived during the Dust Bowl, or a narrative about one of the characters from a primary source document.

Meets Common Core State Standards:

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.5.3 Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, descriptive details, and clear event sequences.

Suggested Read Alouds for the Dust Bowl Unit:

book cover image for out of the dust

Copyright © 1999 by Scholastic Inc.

Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse

This first-person narrative written in free-form poetry documents Billie Jo’s struggles to survive during the Dust Bowl depression years. The diary format captivates students with its simplistic authenticity.

book cover for leah's pony

Copyright © 1999 by Boyds Mill Press

Leah’s Pony by Elizabeth Friedrich; Illustrated by Michael Garland

This beautifully illustrated picture book is set in the 1930s Dust Bowl. Upon discovering her family is in jeopardy of losing their farm, Leah is willing to part with her beloved horse to save her father’s tractor at the neighborhood auction.


How have you incorporated primary sources in your lesson plans? Please share!

Contributing Writer

Image of Blog Contributor Patty ClarkPatty Clark has been a classroom teacher for grades K-6, and District Librarian for grades K-8 for the past 25 years.  She is passionate about helping others find and use information.  Her philosophy is, “It’s not about the amount or the subject matter learned, it’s about the learner discovering the joy in the process that led them to it.”

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  1. Thank you for this well written and cohesive unit on the Dust Bowl, Patty. Since I am particularly interested in ELL, I viewed your excellent lesson through the lens of second language acquisition and its connection to academic language. Many times, ELLs are fluent in conversational language (or “playground language”) but they struggle with academic language. In your strategy 1, I see a perfect comparison of academic vs. conversational language: Why do you think this image was created? / What does this picture make you wonder about?

    In this context, an ELL would most likely prefer the more familiar word “picture” over the academically precise “image.” However, he will probably encounter “image” in other academic contexts, for example, in literature, so it’s important to provide ample exposure and scaffolded support, as you have done in the focus questions featuring “image” and “picture.” Thank you again for an excellent unit.

  2. Appreciate the feedback…I’m glad you found this useful. It will help me in future ideas that I share to think more about the ELL student!

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