Transforming Literacy With Primary Sources & Protocols

I recently started reading Transformational Literacy: Making the Common Core Shift With Work That Matters. Written by Ron Berger and a team of educators, the book provides both theory and practical advice on how to retool our teaching to meet the rigor and complexity of the Common Core.

Early on, the authors make a point that resonated with me: students sometimes “may find ways to avoid reading if given the opportunity to bypass difficult text with other media, such as video or images.” But the standards heavily emphasize written text and the creators of the Common Core were aware of this when they suggested “reading and interpreting multimedia in relationship to text.”

So, how best to make that connection between text and multimedia sources? How do we set up our students for success when it comes to analyzing things that aren’t text?


As we ask students to integrate literacy skills across the curriculum, it makes sense that we find primary source documents from the realms of math, science, history, the arts, or other areas in order to encourage students to think deeply and critically.

I’ve added links to this post with PDF forms created by the National Archives to assist with analyzing and understanding “primary source documents.” What is a primary source? An original object from a historical period (i.e. photo, piece of writing, motion picture, cartoon, poster, sound recording, or physical artifact) is a primary source. Sometimes to understand a subject it helps to study primary sources directly rather than reading secondary sources written about them.

The analysis worksheets from the National Archives will help students evaluate and better understand a particular primary source item.

Analysis Worksheets

Each “worksheet” is in a sense a protocol designed to facilitate a student’s engagement with a primary source document. It scaffolds a student’s experience. Instead of putting a document in front of a student and asking, “So, what do you notice?” it provides a series of smaller things to look at first in order to gain background knowledge of the document that will support drawing conclusions later.

As I was reading the Berger book, I realized that these analysis worksheets could be viewed as prewriting tools to get students thinking and writing about a specific topic much like a Document Based Question (DBQ). It would make sense that other graphic organizers would need to come into play in order to map out an essay or response.

If we couple text with primary source documents, not only are we getting students to think deeply, we’re varying their “text experience.” We are reshaping our students’ views of how they learn.

Yes, they can learn from reading. But they can also learn from analyzing “things” other than text. What’s critical is that we keep relating the two different mediums-text and primary source documents-back to each other so that we can paint a more complete picture of whatever it might be that we’re studying.

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