Lesson plan

Researching the Past Using Primary Sources

Knock, knock! It’s the U.S. Census Bureau! In this lesson plan, students analyze primary sources in the form of census data to do research that helps them answer questions about famous people and the time period during which they lived.
Need extra help for EL students? Try theAnalyzing Primary Sources with Past Tense VerbsPre-lesson.
EL Adjustments
GradeSubjectView aligned standards
Need extra help for EL students? Try theAnalyzing Primary Sources with Past Tense VerbsPre-lesson.

Students will be able to analyze primary sources and answer questions about those sources.

The adjustment to the whole group lesson is a modification to differentiate for children who are English learners.
EL adjustments
(5 minutes)
Reading Primary SourcesPrimary Sources: Joe DiMaggioUsing Primary SourcesPrimary Sources: Walt Disney
  • Ask students to think about where they might look for information if they wanted to do research about people, places, or events of the past.
  • Write students' ideas on the board.
(10 minutes)
  • Explain to students that there are two types of sources from where we can get our information: primary sources and secondary sources.
  • Tell students that a Primary sourceIs the original record that documents an event in time, a person, or an idea. They are created by people who participated and witnessed the past firsthand. Primary sources include recorded interviews, photographs, and diaries.
  • Tell students that a Secondary sourceIs information about an event, person, or an idea created later by someone who did not experience the past firsthand. Secondary source examples include textbooks and academic articles.
  • Explain to students that today we will focus on primary sources.
  • Ask students to look at the list they created at the beginning of class and have them identify which of their examples are primary sources. Place a star next to those examples.
  • Instruct students to add more examples of primary sources to their list.
(10 minutes)
  • Tell students that today we will focus on one particular type of primary source, which is the census. A CensusIs conducted every ten years and is a survey taken of people living in the United States. It documents information such as the name, age, gender, and birthplace of the members of a household.
  • Project the Primary Sources: Thomas Edison worksheet and read aloud the opening passage.
  • Give students some time to analyze the census independently. Ask students to consider the following:
    • What information does this document provide?
    • What do you think this document may have been used for?
    • Why do you think this document is important?
  • Call on students to share their observations.
  • Answer the specific questions at the bottom of the page by calling on student volunteers.
(15 minutes)
  • Tell students they will now practise this skill independently.
  • Preview and handout the Primary Sources: Joe DiMaggio worksheet.
  • Circulate and offer support as needed.


  • Allow students to analyze a primary source with less data such as in the Getting Information from Primary Sources worksheet (see optional materials).
  • Input the information from the Primary Sources: Joe DiMaggio worksheet into a table with bar graphs so that students can have a visual aid to make the information more accessible.


  • Tell students to use the information from the Primary Sources: Joe DiMaggio worksheet to create a bar graph.
  • Encourage students to write an essay about the importance of using primary sources. Ask students to think about the role that bias might play when reading primary and secondary sources. Which type of source would have more bias?
(10 minutes)
  • Project the Clues in the Census worksheet onto the board.
  • Ask students a series of true and false questions using the information from the census (e.g., "Laura Ingalls was born in Kansas. True or false?"). Tell students to show a thumbs-up if the statement is true and a thumbs-down if the statement is false. Ask students to use the information in the census to correct your false statements.
  • Monitor students' responses to gauge understanding.
(5 minutes)
  • Ask students to think about the benefits and drawbacks of using primary sources versus secondary sources. Use these questions to help guide the discussion:
    • Which source do you think would have more bias and not consider other perspectives? Why?
    • Which source might be difficult to decipher (e.g., clarity of handwriting and photographs)? What are some solutions to this?
    • For which source would it be most difficult to verify the accuracy of the information? Why?

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