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Primary Sources and English Language Learners

By Tuyen Tran

“If you give real artifacts, real documents, and real language to your students,” Kate Bowen says emphatically, “then you can empower them to love history.” She would know. Currently a fifth grade teacher at Patwin Elementary School in Davis, California, Bowen and her teaching partner, Sarbjit Nahal, have forty-eight years of teaching experience combined. The pair has had 20 percent English learner (EL), also known as English language learner (ELL), classroom enrollment annually. On any given day in their heterogeneous classroom, their instruction includes a variety of EL strategies and academic literacy support. This includes grammar support, vocabulary and writing exercises, oral language practice, role plays, sequencing activities, primary source analysis, and the use of discipline-specific graphic organizers such as cause and effect charts.

Particularly effective are the students’ WOW portfolios, a collection of their word of the week assignments. After selecting a key concept, event, or character that will be the focus of the week’s history lesson, Bowen has the students write a definition, use it in a sentence, and identify its part of speech or grammatical function. In addition to their other summative assessments, Bowen’s students incorporate new vocabulary into a visual representation of the term, such as the Mayflower Compact (see Figure 1).

student drawing of the Mayflower compact

Student’s written text

Part of Speech: Proper Noun

Definition: The first document of self-government in North America

Sentence: The Mayflower Compact was signed by 42 men.

Teachers such as Kate Bowen play essential roles in serving their students’ needs with accommodations providing universal access to all academic subjects.

Primary Sources and English Learners

Primary sources provide unique opportunities for English learners to use inquiry and develop schema, language, and critical thinking skills. Using images to introduce a lesson provides tangible historical evidence to preview new content. Kate Bowen has found that the use of images generates especially active participation by her ELs. For example, in a painting depicting George Washington’s famed crossing of the Delaware River, students can confidently identify what they see (e.g., “I see a man standing at the head of the boat.”) and make inferences (e.g., “He looks like he’s the leader because he is in front.”). Analyzing an image can serve as an early formative assessment to gauge prior knowledge and gain background information.

There is a growing consensus among policymakers and education specialists that content literacy is critical to English language development.1 Rather than segregating ELs for specialized training in English language proficiency divorced from the content areas, education researchers encourage teachers to modify classroom instruction to meet the needs of all learners.2 English learners must have access to mainstream instruction that integrates “language as a vehicle for learning academic content and learning about the world.”3

The discipline of history poses both opportunities and challenges to English learners. Studying history offers many entry points for teaching ELs because of the subject matter’s potential to reflect students’ life experiences and to connect those experiences to new concepts. High-quality history-social science instruction makes it possible for English learners and low-literacy students to develop the academic literacy and language they need to excel in the core curriculum. It also provides the background knowledge that is vital to reading comprehension.

An inquiry-based history curriculum using both primary and secondary sources is particularly effective for motivating and engaging all students to seek and process information purposefully.4 In Kate Bowen’s class, a Jamestown unit designed in part to teach perspectives incorporates historical fiction such as Blood on the River and multiple documents from the Jamestown primary source set from the Library of Congress Teachers Page. She asks students, “How did the settlers’ and the Powhatan Indians’ perceptions of one another affect their relations?” Such questions help them to understand that history is always evolving, that the teacher does not have all the answers, and that it is important to look at point of view. Students analyze, interpret, and make an argument based upon sources such as Jamestown’s passenger manifest, Chief Powhatan’s prophesy, John Smith’s maps and journals, and portraits from the eighteenth century. Working with real materials from the past excites the students to embark on their own in-depth historical investigations.

Strategies for Supporting English Learners with Primary Sources

Language development is critical to the EL student’s ability to access content knowledge because history is primarily a text-based discipline. Written primary sources and history texts in general are often dense, have multiple forms of text organization, and use complex noun phrases. They are often complicated for students to comprehend, especially if written in archaic language. Such challenges should not deter teachers. Teacher modeling, guided practice and structured sentence and paragraph scaffolds can make historical texts more accessible to students. Furthermore, even though expository writing in history can be difficult for ELs, this type of academic exercise helps students practice essential historical thinking skills, such as using content vocabulary, articulating interpretations, and making arguments supported by relevant evidence. Therefore, teachers must equip themselves with a variety of reading strategies and graphic organizers to assist students in understanding and analyzing primary sources.

Here are two strategies which teachers can use to help students decode language and derive historical meaning from texts:

  • Ask students to consider the language patterns found in historical writing: chronology (series of events), cause and effect, compare/contrast, debate, point of view, description, and argument/explanation. This strategy uses graphic organizers to help students recognize the organizational patterns of history texts to identify the signal words that build a historical argument and narrative, thus increasing text comprehension.
  • Use sentence chunking or sentence deconstruction to help students examine elements of grammar such as transitions (conjunctions, adverbs, and prepositional phrases), historical processes (verb phrases), participants, and outcomes or recipients. This strategy helps students interrogate the text, sentence by sentence.


These close reading strategies are only two of the many approaches that teachers can incorporate into their lesson design to use primary sources that can engage all students. English learners should have ample experiences learning how to read and evaluate various types of primary sources. The benefits of student engagement with primary sources are numerous as long as the instruction is strategically planned.5 As teachers like Kate Bowen and Sarbjit Nahal have discovered, teaching with primary sources can provide students with rich learning experiences by making both the English language and academic content more accessible.

Tuyen Tran, Ph.D., is Assistant Director of both the Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources Program at the University of California, Davis, and the statewide office of the California History-Social Science Project. She wrote this article with support from Phyllis Goldsmith, Co-Director, University of California, Berkeley History-Social Science Project.

1 Diane August and Timothy Shanahan, eds., Developing Literacy in Second-Language Learners: Report of the National Literacy Panel on Language-Minority Children and Youth (New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates), 2006. Rafael Heller and Cynthia Greenleaf, Literacy Instruction in the Content Areas: Getting to the Core of Middle and High School Improvement (Washington, DC: Alliances for Excellent Education), 2007. Timothy Shanahan and Cindy Shanahan. “Teaching Disciplinary Literacy Strategies to Adolescents: Rethinking Content-Area Literacy,” Harvard Educational Review 78, no. 1 (Spring 2008): 40-59.

2 Claude Goldenberg, “Teaching English Language Learners: What the Research Does—and Does Not—Say,” American Educator (Summer 2008): 13.

3 Laurie Olsen, Reparable Harm: Fulfilling The Unkept Promise of Educational Opportunity for California’s Long Term English Learners (Long Beach: Californians Together), 2010, 19.

4 Bruce VanSledright, In Search of America’s Past: Learning to Read History in Elementary School (New York: Teachers College Press), 2002, 134.

5 Keith Barton, “Primary Sources in History: Breaking Through the Myths,” Phi Delta Kappan 86, Issue 10 (2005): 745-753.