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Teachers' notes

Using original sources in the classroom

Primary school pupils may not understand that original sources provide the foundation for understanding about the past or that any interpretation can vary according to the sources studied.

To help introduce your pupils to the concept of primary sources, you could ask them to bring into class a collection of sources that help tell their own history: photographs showing them as a baby or toddler, copy of a birth certificate, birthday card, an old toy, first school /nursery report, holiday snaps, video clips and so on. This will help children grasp the fact that a primary source comes from the particular time period and is evidence of the past. Therefore, for historians, this could be an eyewitness account, diary, photograph, letter, poster, report, painting, seal, or cartoon.

Again, many pupils may be used to reading or sharing narrative history textbooks which use sources purely used as illustration. In order to get them to think more historically it means getting them to look at the source as thing itself. Therefore it is important to provide the opportunity to study an original document (or good copy of one) rather than an extract or let them study an original photograph or seal rather than a modern day artist’s illustration in a book.

To engage your groups with original sources use clear prompt questions to help them evaluate them and draw out inferences. What type of source is it? (Photograph, picture, letter, poster, seal, report); Where is it from? Who is it for? When was it created? Interrogation of the nature of a source in this way will help them to develop lines of enquiry and encourage them to draw their own conclusions.

Learning to interrogate sources will help build pupils’ historical vocabulary and understanding that we find out about the past from these sources. In some cases, we have provided two sources per ‘significant place’ to show the value of looking at more than source and provide opportunities for further source comparison. All text sources have transcripts.

Layers of an onion

Working with sources is like exploring the layers of an onion. The first layer, ‘What is said/shown’ (photograph/cartoon/poster/map/census return) can provide information. However pupils need to be encouraged to delve more deeply into the other layers of the source onion. ‘How are things being said/shown?’ Photographs may be posed in particular fashion, paintings idealised, or the creator’s purpose evident and so on.

Understanding the type of a source and its context is central for unlocking its meaning and prevents pupils from taking it at face value or dismissing it as useless or ‘boring’ because it does not provide enough information.

Extending the range of sources for consideration on the same subject can help to provide more context and widen the level of enquiry and historical understanding. As result pupils will appreciate that some sources are more helpful for different enquiry questions and sources can be checked against other to help them in their evaluation. Again, if a caption is provided within an original source, especially for a photograph or cartoon, discuss with your pupils if it adds to their understanding. To make a point about the use of captions, you could even change a caption of a given source and discuss how you have used the caption to alter the meaning of a source.


Activity 1

 Select any Significant Place source

Use the prompt questions available for download when you are working with your chosen source. [Print out questions or divide them up and write onto cards so that pupils can work in pairs. Use print outs of the source from the website or a projection of it on a whiteboard. Young pupils may need further prompting and support to address the later questions.]

Note: Most of these questions can be applied to any type of primary source. The first four questions concern the process of identification of a source and the later process of interpretation.

  • What type of document is it? (photograph, letter, illustration, seal)
  • Who produced it? Do you know anything about the author/creator?
  • When was it written/produced?
  • When looking at text sources can you explain meaning of any key/difficult words
  • Why was the source written/made?
  • What is the source saying/showing about this place?
  • Does the location of the source relate to a particular historical figure/event?
  • How reliable is the source and does it have any limitations?

How similar or different is this source to others from this period about this place that you may know about?  If so, can you explain why?

Activity 2

  • Taking a thematic approach, you focus different places such as: ‘homes and houses’;  public buildings; schools; castles; parts of Britain; holiday destinations; work places and so on.
  • Compare one place from one time to another to explore through further discussion and research the differences between aspects of life and change over time e.g.
  • How have these places changed?
  • How has this place remained the same?
  • How did people live there long ago?
  • What makes this place special or unusual?
  • Why do we remember this place now?

Further practice with historical sources:

Go to Start Here in our website called The Victorians and get help from our two video presenters about different types of sources for the Victorian period. The video introduces the concept of sources and is followed by a starter activity using a Victorian photograph modelling a useful questioning technique.

Use our series of short video guides and teachers notes’ to carry out your local history projects which is also available in The Victorians.

Finally, all of our searchable online lessons are categorised according to this National Curriculum focus which is recorded in the ‘Lesson at a Glance panel’. We hope this will flag up further useful primary sources and related lesson activities for teachers when approaching this topic.


From pyramids, palaces, public buildings, particular counties to holiday destinations, this selection of sources, based on records held at The National Archives, can be used in the primary classroom to support the National Curriculum element focussing on location. The collection is by no means exhaustive but contains some of the popular choices used for exploring historical places and help to provide more context for significant figures or events selected studied in the classroom.

The collection can offer a starting point for developing a sense of historical perspective by placing pupils’ growing knowledge into different contexts and help them to discover the link between local, national and international history.  Again, the sources can be used within any scheme of work based on developing a sense of chronology where pupils can see that a particular locality or place might fit into a time frame.  Working with sources in this way will help pupils to register similarities and differences between aspects of life between periods, Other ‘place’ sources can be used to consider questions around significance: what we are remembering and why? Have things always been the same? Why have some things changed?

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