About the Author

In her 3rd year at Huntsville High School [AL], Amber Hall teaches U.S. History and English as a Second Language. Amber Hall is an active member of a Teaching American History grant and has received two “Teacher of the Year” honors.

Using Primary Sources with English Language Learners

Finding creative ways to include English Language Learners in classroom activities can be challenging regardless of the teacher’s dedication. One activity that I have found to be successful with all of my students, including those with limited English proficiency, is a primary source analysis activity. This activity can be used in relation to any topic of study. Follow these steps:

  1. Locate primary sources that relate to your topic of study. These may include pictures, artwork, political cartoons, or documents that students can analyze. The Internet is a great resource for finding this material. I often use the National Archives or Library of Congress sites. For example, see this set of Civil War Photographs that I have used. Local archives such as those housed in libraries and college collections are also helpful.
  2. Set up the activity before the students arrive. I usually reserve the school library for this activity because there are tables and plenty of room for the students to move around. Place one source per table along with an index card featuring a number that shows students where on their analysis sheet to record their information.
  3. Place students in small groups. The number in each group will depend on how many sources you gather due to the fact that you can only have as many groups as you have sources. I have found that groups of three work best. Place your ELL students into groups that will encourage their participation.
  4. Hand out resources. Each student needs a writing utensil and a Source Analysis Sheet. Every student is responsible for analyzing each source. Modeling source analysis for the class will insure that students understand the questions on the analysis sheet.
  5. Assign each group a number. This number will correlate to an index card on a table and will direct them to their first source. Tell students that they will only have between two and three minutes to analyze each source and complete the analysis sheet. They should listen for a thirty second warning and the command to rotate to the next source. The sources should be lined up in numerical order and the students will rotate in this order to prevent confusion.
  6. Each group should analyze every source until they rotate back to their original source. Then they have a couple of minutes to compose a brief presentation about their original source. The group then tells the class about their analysis of the source and why they felt it was relevant to the topic. Other students provide input after the group has presented. When the student discussion ends, provide the class with background information about the source. Repeat this step until each group has presented.
  7. Lead a class discussion about the relationship of all the sources if time permits. You may also assign a writing assignment that relates to the primary source. For example, students could write a journal entry from the perspective of one of the people in a picture or even the photographer.

I have used this activity as a way to introduce a unit as well as a content review activity. It works with any topic that has primary source material available. It can be adapted to fit any number of students or any time frame. I work primarily with students in regular classes who might be intimidated by a complex analysis sheet. I created this one as a non-threatening way to teach them to analyze. If you prefer a more challenging activity, there is a more advanced analysis sheet available through the National Archives that may meet your needs.