Engaging Students with Inquiry Using Primary Sources

Teaching research is not just teaching about where information is according to Rebecca Newland. In her 2019 AASL National Conference presentation “Engaging Students with Inquiry Using Primary Sources,” she noted that teaching researching is also an opportunity to teach students how to find answers to questions that they ask themselves. As her ideas have evolved, these ideas have developed as her students have had buy-in through choice. One place that choice is seen is through learners asking their own research questions. In addition, her work with primary sources has influenced how she approaches her instruction on research as she supports her high school students.

Why Teach Students How to Ask Their Own Questions?

When looking at the teaching moment where students are taught to ask their own questions, one may want to know where and how this connects to standards and structures that are already in place. Connecting to the AASL Standards, there are multiple references to learners formulating questions and school librarians teaching students to “display curiosity.” Formulating questions through primary source analysis is one way to approach these goals. 

Looking at research structures, this work connects to Task Definition in the Big 6 model and the Identify section in the Guided Inquiry Design Framework. In Stripling’s model, this idea of asking questions happens in the Wonder phase.

Using Primary Sources to Support Question Development

If students have prior experience analyzing primary sources, Newland advocates for bringing those historical resources into the idea of students asking questions. Part of primary source analysis is asking questions. They can target that analysis of a historical document to the inquiry process. In the best-case scenario, students would know how to find primary sources as well as analyze them.

The Diary of Horatio Nelson Taft, April 14, 1865

For the analysis, Newland suggests using the Primary Source Analysis Tool from the Library of Congress. It encourages students to look at an item, reflect upon it, and ask questions. The resource is freely available.

Participants did a primary source analysis, looking at a passage from a diary concerning the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Observations from the librarians noted the visual elements of the handwritten text noticing that it was bolded, “more frantic” than other text on the page, and underlined for emphasis. Along with a transcript, the reading prompts questions: “Who wrote this? Who was this? Where did he live?”

Newland also likes to layer primary sources when working with students. Working with more than one primary source and seeing how they work together provides insight into perspectives from those that created the sources and, if in contrast with each other, highlight each one by putting them side by side. 

Asking Strong Research Questions

Newland also shared the characteristics of a strong research question. Questions should be:

  • Neither too broad or narrow
  • The question is specific, addressing elements of where, who, and when
  • The answer is not answered with a “yes,” “no,” or a simple online search
  • Others have had similar questions so they can find related published information
  • The question is a new spin or tries to solve a problem

Research Question Examples

To help students bridge into research, students are encouraged to write questions that will help them solve their strong research questions. “What do you need to know first to begin to answer this question?” is a prompt she uses. Students also brainstorm possible resources before they begin researching. This gives them the opportunity to highlight available resources and guide students towards relying on credible sources that are available to them. 

This is one structure that encourages something that all students, high school as well as younger and older, should be doing, asking their own questions. Attendees helped to end the session with questions related to Newland’s topic as well as sharing related work that they are doing with primary sources within the research process.


Author: Tom Bober

Tom Bober is a school librarian at RM Captain Elementary, 2018 Library Journal Mover and Shaker, former Teacher in Residence at the Library of Congress, and author of the upcoming book Elementary Educator’s Guide to Primary Sources: Strategies for Teaching. He writes the Picture Books and Primary Sources posts for AASL’s KQ blog and has written articles for several publications. Tom also presents at conferences, runs workshops, and gives webinars to promote the use primary sources in student learning. He began his career as an elementary classroom teacher, was also an educational technologist, and has spent the last nine years as a school librarian.

Categories: AASL National Conference, Blog Topics, Community, Student Engagement/ Teaching Models

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