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Understanding and Using Primary and Secondary Sources (Gr 9–12)
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About the Lesson
Prior Knowledge
Independent Practice
Extended Learning
Videos by Topic

Understanding and Using Primary and Secondary Sources
Social Studies, Grades 9–12

According to the Library of Congress, "primary sources provide a window into the past—unfiltered access to the record of artistic, social, scientific and political thought and achievement during the specific period under study, produced by people who lived during that period" (Library of Congress). Primary sources can also "bring people into close contact with unique, often profoundly personal, documents and objects" that give them a better sense of the past, as well as a closer connection to it. Students practicing primary source analysis learn to think like historians, constructing theories supported by facts.

Using primary and secondary source audiovisual material, students will analyze and compare varied Texas and U.S. history topics of the 19th and 20th century, and develop analytical and critical thinking and viewing skills, identifying the strengths and limitations of varied historical resources. This lesson highlights the contributions of significant individuals, including U.S. Representative Barbara Jordan, President Lyndon Baines Johnson, Mary Kay Ash, and the infamous outlaws Bonnie and Clyde. It also highlights important topics such as the Texas Alamo, the Galveston Hurricane of 1900, the King Ranch, and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Students will better understand important historical topics and the differences between secondary and primary sources in this lesson. 

Students should have prior knowledge of the following areas to successfully take part in this activity:

  • The following activity assumes students know that history is multifaceted and based on facts and available records.
  • Students should know that records are used to explain the past and can differ with one another.
  • Students should be able to give a few examples of historical sources.
  • Students should be able to look at their classroom textbooks' indexes or work cited pages to identify the different resources used in the textbook.
  • Students should be somewhat aware of the differences between a primary and secondary source. 

Play this short film "Primary and Secondary Sources" by Rob Redman for your students,

After watching the short film, give each student a note card. Instruct them to draw a T chart on it and write "primary sources" on the left and "secondary sources" on the right. Next, have students anonymously list 3-4 examples of each type of source. Collect their notes and review their comprehension. See if any gave examples that were not mentioned in the video.  Read aloud the students' responses and discuss the basic differences between primary and secondary source examples. 

On another note card, have students write down their own definitions of a primary and secondary source. Collect them and assess students' comprehension.  As a class, discuss the differences between the two definitions. 

As a class, write the best comprehensive definitions of primary and secondary sources on the board; be sure to include examples from students' prior examples.  Students should now have a basic understanding of the two sources at this point.

approx. 90–120 minutes

As a preview for the lesson, have students think about how videos and film can also be primary or secondary sources. Ask students to give some examples of film sources.

Divide students into small groups (3-4 students per group). Assign groups a topic (listed below). As a group, students will research and analyze their topic(s) using a variety of assigned primary and secondary source film and video from

Group Topics:

  • The Alamo
  • U.S. Representative Barbara Jordan
  • Bonnie & Clyde
  • The Galveston Hurricane of 1900
  • The King Ranch
  • President JFK’s Assassination
  • President Lyndon Baines Johnson
  • Mary Kay Ash

Depending on your classroom set up, students may rotate around the room to various stations researching topics using their textbooks and classroom computers. Or you can have them do their research in the classroom using their textbooks first, and then you can take them all to the computer lab to work on the primary and secondary film viewing portion. 

Have students start by researching their topics using their textbooks (secondary source) to become familiar with the basic knowledge of the event or person. Have students use the worksheet (see Worksheet) as a group to record their 10 facts. Make 4-5 copies of the worksheet's page 2, the film charts, for groups when using the computer for research. Have students refer to the primary and secondary source guide as they analyze the films. They will answer the following questions about their topic's sources. Make sure students address these questions when they "report out" as a group and present their topics:

  • Why would a historian question the evidence or claims presented in this video?
  • What evidence presented in this video can be used to support the claims of the creator or subject of the video?
  • Do the videos try to present the creator or subject as average or exceptional? Why?
  • What is the context of this video? Why would the films' creators choose to create this particular video at this particular time? 
  • What other information might be needed to determine the accuracy of the video?

Make sure students address these questions when they “report out” as a group and present their topics.

After students have completed their worksheet, researched their topic using the textbook or encyclopedia, viewed the primary and secondary source films assigned to them, and recorded their observations and thoughts, they can now "report out" as a group what they learned. This will be a short classroom presentation in which all members will participate.

Groups will present their historical person or event to the class. This should be a short (less than 10-minute presentation) for each group. They will discuss what they learned about the topic from the primary and secondary sources, and will comment on what was most different about the primary and secondary sources. Make sure students expand on what the book says about their topic based upon the different sources. Have them play short scenes of a primary and a secondary source to the class to demonstrate their differences.


After students have presented their topics to the class, have them take out some notebook paper and record a daily journal entry (their own primary source). Have students write down the date and time at the top of their paper. Then have them describe themselves at this moment. They are documenting their own histories today. Have them address what their interests are, their goals for the future, and their favorite things. Tell them that you will seal these up at the end of class and reopen them at the end of the year. They will get to read about their goals, hobbies, and interests from this specific moment and reflect upon how they changed. This is a personal, fun way to get students to record their own histories, creating primary sources of their own that they can reflect upon later in the year. Follow up: When they read these at the end of the year, you could have them analyze their personal histories (primary source) and create a secondary source synopsis of their primary source personal history.

Now that students understand their topics thoroughly, have them create their own encyclopedia or textbook entries for that topic. Have students write a 1-page description explaining their topic, combining what they learned and observed from both the primary and secondary source material. Have students correctly cite where they learned a particular fact in their paper (work cited page). Collect these accounts to read and assess student’s understanding of primary and secondary sources and their topics as an individual grade.

The Alamo

The David Ayala Collection, no. 7 – The Alamo (1970s)

The Porter Click Family, no. 5 – San Antonio Sightseeing (1970s)

Texas in Review – The Alamo (1958)

Martyrs of the Alamo (1915)

Freedom Highway (1956)
Play the scene with Tex Ritter singing about the Alamo

Our Texas Heritage (1963)


U.S. Representative Barbara Jordan

Barbara Jordan at the National Women’s Conference of 1977

Barbara Jordan Delivers the Democratic National Convention Keynote Address (1976)

The KHOU-TV Collection – News Clips, September 23, 1972 (play the Jordan speech)

Dr. Freeman Reflects on His Relationship with Barbara Jordan (1972) Oral History (2012)


Bonnie and Clyde

Bonnie and Clyde Death Scene (1934)

The Texas Experience – Waylon Jennings Presents Bonnie & Clyde (1986)

Hugh V. Jamieson Interview at KERA

The Retribution of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker (1934)


The Galveston Hurricane of 1900

Galveston Hurricane of 1900 – Panorama of East Galveston

Galveston Hurricane of 1900 - Panorama of Wreckage of Water Front

Galveston Hurricane of 1900 – Searching Ruins on Broadway, Galveston, for Dead Bodies

The Storm (2013)

Caroline Schaper Harris’s Recollections of the 1900 Storm (1986)


The King Ranch

A.M. Harper, King Ranch

John Connally Presented Texas Racing Association Award (1968)

The Texas Experience - Waylon Jennings Presents the King Ranch (1986)

Vaquero (2003)

Our Texas Heritage (1963)


The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy

Special Release: President Assassinated (1963)

Governor Connally Speaks about President Kennedy’s Assassination, Part II (1965)

JFK Assassination Witness Linda Willis in Dealey Plaza

Cactus Pryor Interviews J. Frank Dobie (1963)

Interview with Professor Pennebaker about the Effects of the JFK Assassination on Dallas (1991)


President Lyndon B. Johnson

Annual Message to the Congress on the State of the Union, January 8, 1964

Remarks Upon Signing the Civil Rights Act, April 11, 1968

The President – 1966

The Texas Experience – Barbara Jordan Presents Lyndon Baines Johnson

The Rancher (2012)


Mary Kay Ash

Mary Kay Cosmetics - Capture the Vision (1981)

Mary Kay - All Your Tomorrows (1980)

Mary Kay - It’s a Way of Life (1977)

KOSA-TV - Mary McDowell: Mary Kay Sales Director (1978)

The Texas State Historical Commission’s Timeline of Texas History

Redman, Rob. Primary vs. Secondary Sources

Library of Congress. Primary Source Analysis Tool

Library of Congress. Using Primary Sources

Grade 9 – World Geography

2A – Describe the human and physical characteristics of the same regions at different periods of time to evaluate relationships between past events and current conditions

5A – Analyze how the character of a place is related to its political, economic, social, and cultural elements

8B – Describe the interaction between humans and the physical environment and analyze the consequences of extreme weather and other natural disasters such as El Niño, floods, tsunamis, and volcanoes

9A – Identify physical and/or human factors such as climate, vegetation, language, trade networks, political units, river systems, and religion that constitute a region

10A – Describe the forces that determine the distribution of goods and services in free enterprise, socialist, and communist economic systems

10C – Compare the ways people satisfy their basic needs through the production of goods and services such as subsistence agriculture versus commercial agriculture or cottage industries versus commercial industries

15A –  Identify and give examples of different points of view that influence the development of public policies and decision-making processes on local, state, national, and international levels

16A – Describe distinctive cultural patterns and landscapes associated with different places in Texas, the United States, and other regions of the world and how these patterns influenced the processes of innovation and diffusion

16C – Explain ways various groups of people perceive the characteristics of their own and other cultures, places, and regions differently

17D – Evaluate the experiences and contributions of diverse groups to multicultural societies

21A – Analyze and evaluate the validity and utility of multiple sources of geographic information such as primary and secondary sources, aerial photographs, and maps

22B – Generate summaries, generalizations, and thesis statements supported by evidence

22D – Use standard grammar, spelling, sentence structure, and punctuation

22E – Create original work using proper citations and understanding and avoiding plagiarism

23A – Plan, organize, and complete a research project that involves asking geographic questions; acquiring, organizing, and analyzing information; answering questions; and communicating results

Grade 10 – World History

9D – Identify the influence of ideas such as separation of powers, checks and balances, liberty, equality, democracy, popular sovereignty, human rights, constitutionalism, and nationalism on political revolutions

29A – Identify methods used by archaeologists, anthropologists, historians, and geographers to analyze evidence

29B - Explain how historians, when examining sources, analyze frames of reference, historical context, and point of view to interpret historical events

29C – Explain the differences between primary and secondary sources and examine those sources to analyze frame of reference, historical context, and point of view

29D – Evaluate the validity of a source based on language, corroboration with other sources, and information about the author

29E – Identify bias in written, oral, and visual material

29F – Analyze information by sequencing, categorizing, identifying cause-and-effect relationships, comparing, contrasting, finding the main idea, summarizing, making generalizations and predictions, drawing inferences and conclusions, and developing connections between historical events over time

29G – Construct a thesis on a social studies issue or event supported by evidence

30A – Use social studies terminology correctly

30B – Use standard grammar, spelling, sentence structure, and punctuation

30C – Interpret and written, oral, and visual presentations of social studies information

30D – Transfer information from one medium to another

Grade 11 – U.S. History

2C – Apply absolute and relative chronology through the sequencing of significant individuals, events, and time periods

2D – Explain the significance of the following years as turning points: 1898 (Spanish-American War), 1914-1918 (World War I), 1929 (the Great Depression begins),  1939-1945 (World War II), 1957 (Sputnik launch ignites U.S.-Soviet space race), 1968-1969 (Martin Luther King Jr. assassination and U.S. lands on the moon), 1991 (Cold War ends), 2001 (terrorist attacks on World Trade Center and the Pentagon), and 2008 (election of first black president , Barack Obama)

3B – Analyze economic issues such as industrialization, the growth of railroads, the growth of labor unions, farm issues, the cattle industry boom, the rise of entrepreneurship, the free enterprise system, and the pros and cons of big business

3C – Analyze social issues affecting women, minorities, children, immigrants, urbanization, and the Social Gospel, and philanthropy of industrialists

8D – Explain reasons and outcomes for U.S. involvement in foreign countries and their relationship to the Domino Theory, including the Vietnam War

8E – Analyze the major issues and events of the Vietnam War such as the Tet Offensive, the escalation of forces, Vietnamization, and the fall of Saigon

8F – Describe the responses to the Vietnam War such as the draft, the 26th Amendment, the role of the media, the credibility gap, the silent majority, and the anti-war movement

9A – Trace the historical development of the civil rights movement in the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries, including the 13th, 14th, 15th, and 19 thAmendments

9B – Describe the roles of political organizations that promoted civil rights, including ones from African American, Chicano, American Indian, women's, and other civil rights movements

9C – Identify the roles of significant leaders who supported various rights movements, including Martin Luther King, Jr., Cesar Chavez, Rosa Parks, Hector P. Garcia, and Betty Friedan

9F – Describe presidential actions and congressional votes to address minority rights in the United States, including desegregation of the armed forces, the Civil Rights acts of 1957 and 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965

9H – Evaluate changes and events in the United States that have resulted from the civil rights movement, including increased participation of minorities in the political process

12A – Analyze the impact of physical and human geographic factors  on the settlement of the Great Plains, the Klondike Gold Rush, the Panama Canal, the Dust Bowl, and the levee failure in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina

17D – Identify actions of government and the private sector such as the Great Society, affirmative action, and Title IX to create economic opportunities for citizens and analyze the unintended consequences of each

18A - Discuss the role of American entrepreneurs such as Bill Gates, Sam Walton, Estée Lauder, Robert Johnson, Lionel Sosa, and millions of small business entrepreneurs who achieved the American dream

24B – Evaluate the contributions of significant political and social leaders in the United States such as Andrew Carnegie, Thurgood Marshall, Billy Graham, Barry Goldwater, Sandra Day O'Connor, and Hillary Clinton

25A – Describe how the characteristics and issues in U.S. history have been reflected in various genres of art, music, film, and literature

25D – Analyze the global diffusion of American culture through the entertainment industry via various media

26A – Explain actions taken by people to expand economic opportunities and political rights, including those for racial, ethnic, and religious minorities as well as women, in American society

26D – Identify the political, social, and economic contributions of women, such as Frances Willard, Jane Addams, Eleanor Roosevelt, Dolores Huerta, Sonia Sotomayor, and Oprah Winfrey, to American society

29A – Use a variety of both primary and secondary valid sources to acquire information and to analyze and answer historical questions

29B – Analyze information by sequencing, categorizing, identifying cause-and-effect relationships, comparing and contrasting, finding the main idea, summarizing, making generalizations, making predictions, drawing inferences, and drawing conclusions

29D – Use the process of historical inquiry to research, interpret, and use multiple types of sources of evidence

29E – Evaluate the validity of a source based on language, corroboration with other sources, and information about the author, including points of view, frames of reference, and historical context

29F – Identify bias in written, oral, and visual material

29G – Identify and support with historical evidence a point of view on a social studies issue or event

29H – Use appropriate skills to analyze and interpret social studies information such as maps, graphs, presentations, speeches, lectures, and political cartoons

30B – Use correct social studies terminology to explain historical concepts

30C – Use different forms of media to convey information, including written to visual and statistical to written or visual, using available computer software as appropriate

Grade 12 – U.S. Government

2A – Give examples of the processes used by individuals, political parties, interest groups, or the media to affect public policy

2B – Analyze the impact of political changes brought about by individuals, political parties, interest groups, or the media, past and present

17A – Evaluate a U.S. government policy or court decision that has affected a particular racial, ethnic, or religious group such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the U.S. Supreme Court cases of Hernandez v. Texas and Grutter v. Bollinger

20A – Analyze information by sequencing, categorizing, identifying cause-and-effect relationships, comparing, contrasting, finding the main idea, summarizing, making generalizations and predictions, and drawing inferences and conclusions

20B – Create a product on a contemporary government issues or topics using critical methods of inquiry

20D – Analyze and evaluate the validity of information, arguments, and counterarguments from primary and secondary sources for bias, propaganda, point of view, and frame of reference

21A – Use social studies terminology correctly

21B – Use standard grammar, spelling, sentence structure, and punctuation

21C – Transfer information from one medium to another, including written to visual and statistical to written or visual, using computer software as appropriate

21D – Create written, oral, and visual presentations of social studies information

Introspective Cage