Post-Visit Lesson: Primary Sources

Primary Source Analysis Lesson

Lesson takes between 40 minutes and 90 minutes

Students will analyze a primary source and use literacy and observation techniques to access the information within that source.

Teachers model the above techniques to examine historical primary sources while students work in small groups.


Social Studies. History.

1.2: The historical eras, individuals, groups, ideas and themes in Colorado History and their relationships to key events in US History

Social Studies. Geography.

2.2: Connections within and across human and physical systems are developed

Reading, Writing, and Communicating. Research and Reasoning.

Social Studies. Economics.

3.1: People respond to positive and negative incentives

4.1: Comprehending new information for research is a process undertaken with discipline both alone and within groups




Think-aloud activity

Think-alouds require a reader to periodically stop, reflect on how a text is being processed and understood, and orally relate strategies used: it enables learners to assess their level of comprehension and adjust their strategies for success. Think-alouds can be done in large or small groups.

Start the think-aloud strategy with one source, the Zebulon Pike letter, to practice the strategies as a group. Ask the students to observe the source and think about it like a historian, geographer, and economist. Let the kids think about it first and really observe the source. Let them respond to the source with their own thoughts, feelings, and emotions. Then, if conversation grows stagnant, prompt with some of the questions from below.

Try writing on the board:

“Think like a historian, geographer, and economist.”

Once they have exhausted the Zebulon Pike letter, you can have the students break into small groups to analyze one source at a time, possibly in rotating stations. Let the students discuss with one another the importance and details of each source, while reminding them to think as a historian, geographer, and economist.

At their last table have them do a writing assignment about one source that answers the following questions about their source. They can either choose to write about their favorite source, or the instructor can tell them to use their final source.


  1. Historian
    • What is the historic significance of this source?
    • What is different in this source than in something that came from today?
    • When is this source from? What was happening in Colorado and the United States at the time of this source?
  2. Geographer
    • What place names are mentioned in this source?
    • Where is the source from? How do you know? What region of Colorado is it from?
    • How did the people in the source alter their environment?
  3. Economist
    • What is the economic impact of this source?
    • What examples of goods and services produced in Colorado are shown in this source?
    • Which productive resources are shown in this source – natural, human, or capital?

Additional sources

If you would like to find additional primary sources, go to the Golden History Museums’ photo database.

Writing or verbal prompt

A shorter way to facilitate this writing lesson is through any of the following writing or verbal prompts. This can be used in conjunction with the think-aloud or separately.

  • “A primary source is… “
  • “I made a connection to the letter when…”
  • “What I found most interesting about this letter was…”
  • “I think that the person who wrote this letter was feeling…”


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