About the Author

The Stanford History Education Group, located at the nation's leading School of Education, engages in projects at the forefront of how students learn history. Our staff have decades of history teaching experience in high school, middle school, and elementary school classrooms.

Adapting Documents for the Classroom: Equity and Access

What Is It?

Preparing and modifying primary source documents so that all students can read and analyze them in their history classrooms.


Although they are useful for engaging students in the past, and teaching them to think historically, primary source documents often use antiquated or complex language. This can pose a challenge even for able readers, let alone those who read below grade level. Adapting a variety of historical documents for use in the classroom will allow students greater access to important reading and thinking opportunities.


Adapting documents for the classroom includes the use of excerpts, helpful head notes, and clear source information. It means adjusting documents for non-expert readers and making them shorter, clearer, and more focused. Adaptations can also include simplifying syntax and vocabulary, conventionalizing punctuation and spelling, cutting nonessential passages, and directing attention to a document's key components.

Teacher Preparation
  • Choose a document that is relevant to the historical question or topic that    your class is studying. Consider what you want students to get out of the    document. Will they try to unravel a historical puzzle? Corroborate    another document? Dive deeper into a particular topic? Write a focus    question for the lesson and the document.
  • Make sure that the source of the document is clear. State whether you    found it online or in a book, clearly identify when, where, by whom, and    for whom the source was originally created.
  • Create a head note that includes background information and even a brief    reading guide. This helps students to focus on what they're reading while    using background knowledge to make sense of it.
  • Focus the document. Although some documents may seem too important    to edit, remember that students may be overwhelmed by passages that    look too long. Judicious excerpting with a liberal use of ellipses makes any    document more approachable and accessible. If students are confused by    ellipses, shorten documents without them.

Consider simplifying the document. This can include the following modifications, but use them sparingly and carefully:

  • Cut confusing or nonessential phrases to make it shorter and easier to    follow
  • Replace difficult words with easier synonyms
  • Modify irregular punctuation, capitalization, or spelling

Every adaptation is a tradeoff, so when in doubt, consider whether a particular adaptation is necessary for your students to access, understand, and analyze the document. Work on presentation. Brevity is important, especially in making a document student-friendly. Other techniques to render a document approachable include:

  • Use of large type (up to 16 point font)
  • Ample white space on the page
  • Use of italics to signal key words
  • Bolding challenging words
  • Providing a vocabulary legend
In the Classroom
  • Devise a focus question to use with prepared documents. Introduce the    question to your class and explain that reading each document will help    them to answer it. (The focus question used in the example is "Why is the    Homestead Act historically significant?")
  • Explain that the document has been adapted to make it clearer and more    useful for today’s lesson. You can provide students with the original and    the adapted documents; or give them the adapted document, while    projecting the original on a screen.
  • Direct students’ attention to parts that have been added to the document.    Show them the document’s source information—its author, and the    circumstances of its publication—while discussing how such information    can help them understand the contents of a document. Show them the    head note.
  • Identify words that have definitions provided, reminding students to    underline or highlight other difficult words in the document in order to    build vocabulary skills.
  • Encourage students to notice any italicized words which indicate    emphasis and to make notes in the margins as they read.
  • Have students answer the focus question, using information and quotes as    evidence from the document to support their answers.
Have students answer the focus question, using information and quotes as evidence from the document to support their answers.

Extension: As students become more adept with using documents, discontinue some of the reading supports. A useful companion lesson is to let students compare the original document with the edited version, to make explicit the modifications and consider whether they changed the document’s meaning or not.

Common Pitfalls
  • Candidly explain that students are working with documents that have    been specially prepared for the classroom. A phrase such as "Some of the    language and phrasing in this document have been modified from the    original" posted at the bottom of the page may be useful. Make sure the    original document is available to students and allow anyone interested to    compare it with the adapted version.
  • Do be careful, however, that the adapted document doesn't seem less    valuable than the original. Emphasize to students that all historians    struggle with using documents from the past. Adapting documents is    simply a tool to help novice historians develop their skills and access    rich content.
  • Use this method also when students are using multiple documents. In this    case, instructional steps may be added to assist students in considering    how documents work together and to help them answer the focus    question.
  • The focus question should require that students read and understand the    document, and use it as evidence in supporting their answers.
An Example for High School Education

See here for original document, here for a transcribed version, and here for an adapted version of the Homestead Act of 1862.

An Example for Middle School Education

See here for a transcribed version of "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?" by Fredrick Douglass, and here for an adapted version of the document for use in a middle school classroom. To view the original document, see Foner, Philip. The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, Volume II Pre-Civil War Decade 1850-1860 (New York: International Publishers, 1950).

An Example for Elementary Education

See here for an original version of John Smith’s "A True Relation." See here for an adapted version appropriate for an elementary school classroom.

Further Resources

For more examples of modified document sets, see Historical Thinking Matters. Select "Teacher materials and strategies," select one of the four topics, and then select "materials" and "worksheets." For original and transcribed versions of milestone documents in US history, see 100 Milestone Documents from the National Archives and Records Administration.