Primary Sources and Teaching Less

Reading primary sources can be difficult for struggling readers.  Lets be honest, it can be difficult for many readers. Primary sources in my class are often written at least a few centuries ago in a style that simply confuses my students.  However, the project we are just now finishing had students read primary sources from the era of Indian independence (late 1800's to 1947).  I tried to scaffold the reading by defining words that students might not know.  The other support I gave students was a group.  Student worked in groups of 3 to read and analyze the short primary sources.

I taught students to "chunk" the reading into a few sentences and discuss each chunk separately and try to figure out its meaning.  "What is this chuck trying to say to you", I asked them.  I told them they would have to read each primary source multiple times--this was normal, but taking good notes would reduce the number of times they had to read each source.  The whole-group direct instruction explanation of this skill mostly fell on deaf ears, but once I went around to each group as they met frustration or misunderstanding, I retaught the aforementioned advice.  I saw groups instantly begin to successfully dissect the difficult reading.  Before I talked to them, I realized they were reading through the entire passage--burning right through it, basically lip-syncing the words, without any level of processing what they were reading.  It was then I realized many of my kids didn't know how to read critically.

Many of them did not have the skill set to tackle difficult reading.  Students have encountered difficult reading before, but their computers enabled them to find more simple resources.  This project required them to explain how India became independent (choosing a combination of 6 possible causes) by selecting specific quotes and portions from the primary sources only.  They allocated a certain percentage to each of the 6 possible causes, but had to justify their choices with specific parts of each primary source.  They were forced to understand the information in the primary source.

The "chunking" advice was very useful, but the best resource the students had to understand the difficult primary sources were their groups.  After they read a few sentences, they would have great conversations about what the chunk was about.  I heard students correcting each other, building on each other's knowledge, reminding each other about context clues, identifying vocabulary words, etc.  It was really exciting.  I just found it interesting that when students were initially told to use this method it was ignored, but when I sat down in a moment of frustration and retaught it and modeled it for them they took right to it.  This just reinforces something we've blogged about before.  The more I teach, the less they learn.  If they don't "need" what you are teaching, they won't remember and/or use it.  Whole-group direct instruction should be limited as much as possible.  As students begin to work and you identify a few students beginning to struggle, you can "spot teach" as needed.  If a student can learn something on their own, why steal that from them with unnecessary instructions and advice?  New motto: Don't steal their learning.


  1. Excellent. I need to emphasize "chunking" as I teach research in the library. The speed reading and lip moving through passages happens all the time. Love the new motto as well. A great reminder for us all.

    1. Thank you Sherry! I'm sure there is a more professional, official term for it, but it stuck with the kids. I heard them use the word "chunk" several times as I walked around the room. Thanks for reading and commenting. Hope to see you at Edcamp Fort Wayne in May!

    2. Hi,
      My 9th grade students are also studying India's independence movement right now. Do you think you could send me some of the documents/activities you use?

      I have also found that students teaching each other more can be more effective than me teaching the whole class. Kudos!

  2. I totally agree with your new motto. That is 100% correct. Thanks for your information.


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