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DESCRIBE: A Strategy for Making Text-Based Primary Sources More Accessible

By Colleen Reardon, Ed.D., and C. Ben Freville, M.S. Sp. Ed.


Integrating primary sources into the K-12 curriculum provides students with exciting learning opportunities and benefits. Using primary sources, however, also presents challenges, especially for students with disabilities. In order to address these challenges and make primary sources more accessible to all students, teachers need effective and powerful instructional strategies. This article outlines one such strategy, called DESCRIBE, developed by Dominican University School of Education faculty and tested in inclusive classrooms.

Benefits of Using Primary Sources

Teaching with primary sources in the classroom can bring history alive and increase student interest, motivation and engagement. Available in a variety of formats—manuscripts, maps, photographs, motion pictures, sound recordings, and more—primary sources offer teachers unique possibilities for engaging students of all ability levels, interests, and learning styles. The millions of digitized primary sources now available online provide teachers with endless opportunities for helping students personally connect with subject-area content while developing critical thinking skills and constructing new knowledge.

For example, through the use of primary sources, students can gain a historical perspective of individuals of a particular region while developing a deeper understanding of a specific time period under study. At the same time, students may begin to perceive the complex nature of problems, decisions, and issues people have faced throughout history. Diaries, letters, photographs, and journals provide opportunities for students to gain a very real sense of what it was like to be alive at a different time.

The use of primary sources offers opportunities for students to build vocabulary, make inferences, and think logically. Students develop the ability to analyze historical evidence and integrate information coming from multiple and often conflicting sources. Primary sources encourage the development of analysis skills, especially when used to explore an authentic real-life problem.

Challenges of Using Primary Sources

Despite these benefits, learning, behavioral and/or physical characteristics of some students can interfere with their ability to benefit from the study of primary sources without instructional support. Therefore, it is important for teachers to understand the challenges that students with disabilities may encounter when using primary sources in order to determine the most effective instructional strategies for helping all students reap the benefits.

One challenge for many students with and without disabilities is that they lack background knowledge or struggle to bring prior knowledge to relate to the study of a particular primary source. This may prevent students from making meaningful connections. For instance, they may not have the necessary knowledge to connect particular events or the life histories of individuals with the broader historical context. Lack of background knowledge has been linked with difficulty in making inferences and more generally comprehending expository text (Ehren 2005).

Furthermore, the lack of domain specific background knowledge has been found to lead students to misconceptions. For example, in a unit on Westward migration, students with disabilities suggested that people traveled west so that they could live in better neighborhoods. While they used prior knowledge from their own experiences or those of others they knew, the lack of domain specific background knowledge led them to inaccurate conclusions regarding the reasons people migrated west in the nineteenth century (Ferretti, MacArthur, and Okolo 2007).

Text-based primary sources, such as letters or diary entries, can prove particularly challenging to students with disabilities and other struggling readers. Limited reading and language skills may interfere with the understanding of primary sources. The vocabulary and style of writing, especially from earlier eras in history, can be unfamiliar even to students with advanced reading skills. Additionally, the small font of some digitized primary sources or script used in letters and other manuscripts may interfere with readability.

Other challenges relating to the study of primary sources include using evidence to support a historical claim and difficulties with historical reasoning. Understanding of bias and being able to understand a primary source through a lens other that of the 21st century is a challenge for any student.

Instructional Strategies Supporting the Use of Primary Sources

The use of specific instructional strategies can support the learning of students with disabilities in their study of primary sources, helping them to overcome related challenges such as those already described. Teaching strategies provide structure for students and focus them on key understandings. They foster comprehension and vocabulary development and aid in the processing of information to promote deeper understanding. Through the use of specific instructional strategies, teachers can make relationships among pieces of information explicit. These strategies are of added benefit in that they actively involve students in the learning process. Such instructional strategies, including the one outlined in the next section, will support the learning of all students but are of particular benefit to students with disabilities.


The DESCRIBE Strategy

DESCRIBE is an instructional strategy used by teachers to guide students through reading and analyzing text-based primary sources. It is designed to aid students in activating background knowledge, understanding key vocabulary, and comprehending text, and it is modeled after the Content Enhancement Routine approach developed by researchers at the Center for Research on Learning at the University of Kansas. This approach is based on seven research-based instructional principles:

  • actively involving students in the learning process;
  • presenting abstract information in concrete forms;
  • organizing information for students;
  • tying new information to previously learned information;
  • distinguishing important information from unimportant information;
  • making relationships among pieces of information explicit, and;
  • explicitly showing students how to learn specific types of content (Bulgren, Schumaker & Deshler 2001).

The DESCRIBE strategy can be helpful to all students, especially those who struggle with reading comprehension, making connections with background knowledge, and analyzing and synthesizing content information.

Content enhancement routines such as the DESCRIBE strategy are composed of three parts:

  1. a teaching device, such as a graphic organizer;
  2. a routine or a set of steps that guide students through the thinking processes that enable them to meaningfully access content, and;
  3. procedures associated with strategic teaching, i.e. explicitly teaching the routine for completion of the device, actively involving students in the process, using probing and clarifying questions (Bulgren & Lenz 1996).

The teaching routine, which is represented by the mnemonic device DESCRIBE, and the graphic organizer are presented in the boxes below. The strategic teaching procedures associated with the DESCRIBE strategy are explained in the paragraphs that follow the graphic organizer.


DESCRIBE Strategy Steps

Describe the document

Explain the concept

State the unit

Comb through the document for unique features and new vocabulary

Read and as you read ask yourself, “What is this about?”

Indicate your response in the appropriate box

Bring it all together

DESCRIBE Graphic Organizer


DESCRIBE Procedures

In preparation for using the DESCRIBE strategy with students, the teacher should:

  • select a text-based primary source;
  • divide the document into three equal parts or choose three important paragraphs from it for reading;
  • follow the steps of the DESCRIBE strategy to complete the graphic organizer, and;
  • use the completed graphic organizer as a guide when implementing the strategy in the classroom.

Before starting the activity, the teacher provides students with a copy of the original primary source, including its bibliographic information, and a blank graphic organizer. The teacher posts the DESCRIBE strategy steps in a prominent place in the classroom for students to see.

To begin, the teacher calls students’ attention to three items: the content (i.e., the text-based primary source), the DESCRIBE strategy steps, and the DESCRIBE graphic organizer.

The teacher guides students through the strategy steps while completing the graphic organizer. Each step of the DESCRIBE strategy is explained in more detail in the example below using a letter written by Tilton C. Reynolds, a Union soldier, to his mother, Juliana Smith Reynolds, in 1864 during the Civil War.

Describe the document.

The teacher presents the primary source to students and asks them for a description of the document. The teacher directs students to read the accompanying bibliographic information. At a minimum, this will include the title and a one line summary of the document. The teacher assists the students in paraphrasing the information and writes it in the title and description of document box (1) on the graphic organizer. Students copy the information onto their graphic organizers.

Explain the concept, and State the unit.

The teacher briefly explains the current concept being studied and writes it in the top section of the concept/unit box (2). Then the teacher states the current unit of study and writes it in the bottom section of the same box (2). Students copy the information on their graphic organizers.


Comb through the document for unique features and new vocabulary.

The teacher models combing through (skimming) the document to identify unique features and new vocabulary. A think-aloud should be used to demonstrate the thought process that the teacher is using to recognize unique features of the document and to identify new vocabulary. As the teacher models, she should underline vocabulary and make notes about unique features on the document. After modeling the process for the first part of the document, the teacher should involve students in this process by asking them to pick up where she left off. The teacher elicits responses from students and underlines and makes notes on the document. When finished with this process, the teacher summarizes the information (margin notes and underlined vocabulary) and writes it in the unique features and new vocabulary boxes (3); students copy the information onto their graphic organizers. The teacher should discuss the unique features and new vocabulary with the students.

Read and as you read ask yourself, “What is this about?” and Indicate your response in the appropriate box.

With the first section or paragraph of the document, the teacher models reading this text and asking herself, “What is this paragraph about?” The teacher records the response to the question in the first box under read-ask-answer on the graphic organizer (number 4, box 1). The teacher follows the same process with section or paragraph 2, this time eliciting responses from students. The response to the question, “What is this about?” is recorded on the graphic organizer (number 4, box 2). The teacher and students do the same with section or paragraph 3 and record the response in the appropriate box (number 4, box 3) on the graphic organizer.

Bring it all together.

The teacher then leads the students in a discussion about the main ideas of the document. Together, the teacher and students develop a list of statements summarizing the main ideas using information from the unique features, new vocabulary, and read-ask a question-answer boxes of the DESCRIBE graphic organizer. The statements are written in the bring it all together box (5).

Examine the graphic organizer.

As the last step, the teacher reviews the completed DESCRIBE graphic organizer with students in an interactive way, asking them questions and requesting further explanation about the information written on the graphic organizer. The teacher should model how to ask a question based on information from the bring it all together box and solicit responses, then encourage students to pose their own questions for discussion. The teacher may extend the activity by helping students identify topics for further investigation or using the Library of Congress Teacher’s Guide to Analyzing Manuscripts and Analysis Tool to continue studying the primary source.

Completed DESCRIBE Graphic Organizer


Integrating primary sources into the curriculum provides teachers and students with many opportunities for extending and deepening learning. Primary sources present particular challenges to students with and without disabilities who struggle with reading comprehension, making connections with background knowledge, and analyzing and synthesizing content information. By using the DESCRIBE strategy to guide instruction, teachers can help all students to experience the benefits of learning with primary sources.

Additional instructional strategies, along with hardware and software tools and other modifications that teachers can use to make digitized primary sources more accessible to students with disabilities are available in Dominican University’s online resource, “Supporting the Learning of Students with Disabilities: A Guide to the Use of Digitized Primary Sources”.

Colleen Reardon is Dean of the School of Education and Ben Freville is an Assistant Professor of Education at Dominican University in River Forest, Illinois. Dominican University belongs to the Federation of Independent Illinois Colleges and Universities, one of 24 members of the Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources (TPS) Educational Consortium.


Bulgren, J.A. & Lenz, B.K. (1996). Strategic instruction in the content areas. In Deshler, D.D., Ellis, E.S., and Lenz, B. K. (Eds.), Teaching adolescents with learning disabilities (409-473). Denver, CO: Love.

Bulgren, J.A., Schumaker, J.B. & Deshler, D.D. (2001). The Concept Mastery Routine. Lawrence, KS: Edge Enterprises.

Ehren B. J. ((2005). Looking for evidence-based practice in reading comprehension instruction. Topics in Language Disorders, 25 (4), 310-321

Ferretti, R. P. MacArthur, C. A. & Okolo, C. M. (2007). Students’ misconceptions about U. S. westward migration. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 40 (2), 145-153.