Examining the Evidence
Seven Strategies for Teaching
with Primary Sources

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Praise for Examining the Evidence
Seven Strategies for Teaching with Primary Sources

From the Preface by Dr. Sam Wineburg

Director of the Stanford History Education Group and author of Reading Like a Historian: Teaching Literacy in Middle and High School Classrooms

On one level, the book you are holding is about the reading of primary sources. But on a much deeper level, you are holding a manual for citizenship. This book is a guide for awakening tomorrow's citizens to the world they inhabit. Examining the Evidence rightfully dissolves the distinction between image and word in our digital society, where both can be twisted, retouched, ripped from one context and slotted into another, used to incite or quell depending on predetermined aims. This book's seven strategies sound an alarm that awakens us to our digital world. How should we start? We begin by paying attention. Next, we ask questions. . . .

The book you are holding demands that we learn to see differently, to weigh possibilities, to question more precisely, to argue for our interpretation, and justify our interpretation cogently and convincingly. Primary sources are means to a higher end -- one that applies not only to the social studies, but to every single subject in the curriculum. The book you are holding helps teachers teach students how to think.


National Council for the Social Studies

Notable Social Studies Trade Books 2014 (Before publication in 2015)

Learning Magazine

2016 Teachers' Choice Award, Professional Development

Teaching with Primary Sources Mississippi

One of 3 Recommended Resources on teaching with primary sources



School Librarian's Workshop
Hilda K. Weisburg, M.L.S.

Hilary Mac Austin and Kathleen Thompson make a case for Examining the Evidence: Seven Strategies for Teaching with Primary Sources (Foreword by Sam Wineburg, Maupin House, Capstone Professional, 2015, 978-1- 62521-630-4 162 p.) for students in grades K-8 After explaining what constitutes primary and secondary sources found not just in history but in the world around us, the authors go into detail explaining their seven strategies including “Determine the Purpose,” “Look for Bias,” and “Compare a Variety of Sources.” Photos fill the chapters which conclude with “ Things to Think About.” Chapter Ten gives you examples to practice how to “Apply the Strategies,” and the final chapter explores where to “Find the Primary Sources.” An invaluable resource for you and teachers on how to incorporate primary sources into your daily teaching.

chool Library Connection
Mary Alice Anderson, Online Instructor, University of Wisconsin-Stout

"This guide offers approaches to using primary sources effectively to help students attain visual literacy and understanding. Opening chapters discuss relationships between primary sources and the Common Core Standards, types of primary sources, using primary sources in diverse content areas, and give an overview of each strategy. The “strategies” chapters describe methods for deeply examining a source. Chapters considering the teacher's role in facilitating understanding primary sources and approaches to understanding bias are especially useful." - School Library Connection

Middle Web
Nicole C. Miller

When I saw Examining the Evidence: Seven Strategies for Teaching with Primary Sources by Hilary Mac Austin and Kathleen Thompson on the list of choices for review, I immediately jumped on the opportunity. My current work with another teacher educator on a Teaching with Primary Sources grant from the Library of Congress and my background as a former social studies teacher initiated my interest.

Not just for the Social Studies teacher

Examining the Evidence focuses on the use of primary sources for teaching and learning, with a significant emphasis on the use of visual sources which are particularly accessible to elementary aged and middle level children.

In order to help teachers and students examine primary sources successfully, the authors use a “historical thinking” framework as their foundation. While this might appear to make the text limited in use for non-social studies teachers, this book has a place on the shelf of a much larger audience of educators.

The research-related skills explored and explained in this text are skills that are not only threaded throughout the ELA Common Core Standards, but are ones necessary for creating capable and critical citizens. In today's society, we are bombarded with visual information that influences our thinking on significant topics, from war to the job crisis. In order to be effective citizens, we need to be able to critically examine these visuals to understand what they are demonstrating, including the potential for bias or incomplete information.

The authors also effectively argue that emotion is an important hook to student engagement. We can leverage visceral reactions to visual and authentic voices in the classroom by using the strategies presented not only to augment the development of thinking, visual, and other literacy skills, but to better engage our students.

Examining the evidence

The core foundation of this text relies on the thinking-like-a-historian framework discussed in the research by Sam Wineburg – a framework that is also highly aligned to the CCSS goal of examining and providing evidence. Three key skills important to the process of thinking like a historian focus on key heuristics used by historians: contextualization, sourcing, and corroboration.

Contextualization is the process whereby primary sources are placed into the temporal and conditional context within which they occurred. Sourcing is the examination of the origin of a text or other primary source. Sourcing is done in order to recognize that historical documents are interpretations of events. Corroboration is the process of comparing multiple sources of information in order to determine the reliability or potential bias of a source.


The authors present seven strategies to engage with primary sources that are related to these heuristics, but are easily understood and digestible for students and teachers. Additionally, each strategy is aligned to specific Common Core State Standards. The seven strategies are as follows:

  • Strategy 1: Decide what you are looking at.

  • Strategy 2: Determine the purpose and audience.

  • Strategy 3: Look for bias.

  • Strategy 4: Examine closely the source itself.

  • Strategy 5: Find more information.

  • Strategy 6: Consider your own role in the interaction.

  • Strategy 7: Compare a variety of sources.

In addition to the strategies addressed, the text provides some basic understanding of primary versus secondary sources, the role of primary sources in the world around us, and suggestions on applying the strategies, as well as supports for locating primary sources.

Applying the strategies and other text resources

Austin and Thompson provide additional guidance on how to apply the strategies in concert with one another. While the strategies are identified and discussed individually, they often can be used more effectively in conjunction with one another. In the discussion of applying the strategies presented, the authors extend their work to discuss how to use multiple strategies through various primary source examples including artifacts, images, texts, and primary source sets.

The authors also provide guidance on locating primary sources, giving a multitude of online options to examine. One that I particularly appreciate is the Library of Congress website for teachers. It has a search tool that provides for searches based on Common Core and state standards and by grade level. While it is not perfect, it is a great starting point and resource for teachers interested in teaching with primary sources.

Final thoughts

With a foreword by Sam Wineburg, this book gained instant credibility. The authors, Austin and Thompson, also share their personal backgrounds which include significant experience using, teaching with, and writing about primary sources.

I can gladly recommend this book for teachers in grades K-8. The text is well-organized and accessible. At the end of each chapter the authors provide “Things to Think About” to help the reader extend and deepen their thinking about the given chapter. In some chapters, the authors also provide a “just for fun” section which adds levity and interest.

Dr. Nicole C. Miller is a faculty member in the Department of Curriculum, Instruction, and Special Education at Mississippi State University. She previously worked as a social studies and educational technology teacher/coordinator at a Los Angeles middle school. Her current research interests include middle level teacher preparation, teaching with primary sources, and technology integration, including the use of technology to support teacher learning.

Teacher Librarian: Resources for the Teacher Librarian
Elizabeth "Betty" Marcoux

This book is directed to learners through grade 8, with possibilities in secondary school as well. Basically, it is more for the professional and helps develop how best to use primary sources—there are strategies that involve visual literacy as well as developmental appropriateness. It is the professional who will need to see differently, weigh issues differently, and be open to student interaction with a primary source in ways not imagined. This book helps to do this. . . .It challenges educators to bring the real history of photo and sound into learning. Intertwined with the Common Core standards, this book can assist in developing lessons that related to learning in multifaceted ways.

The History Teacher
Society for History Education
Greg Ahlquist, Webster Thomas High School (Webster, New York)

Examining the Evidence presents seven strategies that elementary and middle school teachers can use with students to analyze primary sources. The seven strategies fall into the genre of various document analysis scaffolds like the commonly used SOAPSTONE or those produced by the National Archives or the DBQ Project. While the seven steps comprise seven chapters and are the substance of the book, Austin and Thompson make an important clarification in the introduction: “Of course, the process we are laying out here is not a strict linear progression. These strategies provide a framework to a process that is usually a flow rather than a ladder. Analyzing a primary source requires a back and forth between the strategies” (p. 16). Teaching and learning is messy work and acknowledging at the start that unpacking one source may require a different set of steps and questions than another source is an important foundation. Their statement also implicitly acknowledges that each student is unique and will approach sources differently. In essence, the strategies are less a step-by-step “recipe” approach to source analysis and more a list of various ingredients that might be added to a stew when the cook deems wise.

Austin and Thompson have worked together in the past and have largely centered their research on analyzing images. While the principles of source analysis for this book apply to visual and text-based sources, their greatest contributions seem to revolve around interpreting visual evidence. Most of the excellent illustrations of their strategies focus on photographs and visual sources—Chapter 2, for example, which introduces primary sources, mainly focuses on visual sources, and barely addresses textual sources. Meanwhile, Strategies 4 and 5 begin with analyzing visual sources and then apply those principles to textual sources. Other strategies (Strategies 1, 2, 3, 6) focus almost exclusively on visual sources. In this way, the authors play to their strengths and directly address the very real challenge of teaching with and analyzing visual images. In a time when our emphasis and attention has been focused on reading and close reading of text sources, this book reminds us of the importance of visual sources as a base of evidence and provides tools to mine those sources for all they are worth in the early years of education.

Strategy 4, analyzing the source itself, is absolutely pivotal and might have been placed earlier in their process. Purpose, audience, and bias (Strategies 2 and 3) may be dependent on a careful analysis of the source. Pedagogical suggestions, such as using a grid system to examine a visual image, provide useful and practical teaching techniques. In working with students, I have found that this is critical, yet can be quickly glossed over. In a visual culture where students process images and information so quickly, slowing down the analysis process is a critical step. The authors recognize this importance, noting, “this is where the work is.”

Another gem that might be missed in a quick reading of this book can be found in the last two chapters: “apply the strategies” and “find primary sources.” These two chapters are not part of the seven strategies, yet provide helpful and valuable tools for any teacher. Chapter 10 offers an opportunity for teachers to “test drive” their strategies with good sources. Though there are not “answers” to the questions posed with these sources, teachers will find the questions helpful as a guide to the theoretical steps presented in the previous chapters. Austin and Thompson selected rich sources for this chapter and thoughtfully offer permission to use the images for the purposes of classroom instruction, a feature teachers should seize upon. The last chapter provides a helpful starting line for teachers hunting down sources. The herculean task of locating and selecting sources is a real and practical challenge teachers face every day. This chapter catalogues various collections and sites that can serve as a practical first step in hunting down sources. Their expertise emerges again in Appendix 1, when they present a variety of outstanding photograph collections. If one is too closely focused on the strategies, these very helpful resources could be missed.

While the book is targeted for K-8 teachers and students, all teachers may find this resource helpful, though teachers at every grade level will have to modify and adapt the steps for their classrooms.

Professionally Speaking
Michael Bellrose, OCT

A deluge of popular media inundates our students daily. If teachers are going to teach them how to critically process the torrent, students must first become analytical examiners of the texts and images around them, both inside and outside of school. According to the authors, a great way to help students develop critical and creative thinking processes is to teach them to dig into primary sources, especially visual media and first-hand accounts of historical moments or events. “These evidences of our past evoke a personal reaction — of sympathy, of anger, of compassion — in a way that straight narrative and lists of facts simply cannot,” they write. Teachers should encourage students to examine all sources — photographs, maps, paintings, political cartoons, charts, graphs — with the eye of an historian, using approaches that consider the purpose of the source and its intended audience, as well as any bias that may be embedded within it.

Students are also encouraged to understand that while their prior knowledge is activated when they interpret a piece of evidence, any opinions they may have about a photograph, for example, should be an informed response that is fully supported by the evidence. Paraphrasing an old journalism maxim, the authors suggest that “[if] your mother tells you she loves you, get a second source.”

Ideal for primary and middle school teachers, the book teaches all of us how to learn differently and to question the words and images that shape our perceptions of the world. Although it closely aligns with American curriculum, it equally applies to the Canadian experience.

The Social Studies Professional

Educators are being challenged as never before to “invite reality” into the classroom and allow students to explore it. Primary sources are the very documents that history is made of. They are also excellent tools to teach the critical thinking skills required by the Common Core State Standards. This book reveals in detail the strategies teachers can use to make primary sources come alive for students and to enhance visual literacy. It includes clear photographs and powerful primary source texts.


Amazon Reviews

5.0 out of 5 stars Primary Source Guide
By Amazon Customer on December 10, 2015

As a history teacher for the past seven years, I am always looking for new ways to put primary documents in the hands of students. Locating primary sources is pretty easy with the use of the internet but once you have the evidence/primary source how do you utilize it to make the most impact on students? Isn't that what we worry about as teachers? Austin and Thompson have put together a treasure trove in their book Examining the Evidence: Seven Strategies for Teaching with Primary Sources. The strategies are applicable, the ideas are intriguing, the examples are powerful and the additives (quotes and Things to Think About sections) round out a great resource that every classroom needs that is serious about embedding primary sources into the curriculum. The last section of the book is FULL of online resources for every content area - making the cross-curricular jump and increasing its worth as a classroom library ‘must have'. I especially liked the applications at the end and the thought engaging questions that accompanied each image. I would encourage all educators to purchase their own copy. It's an investment for the classroom!

5.0 out of 5 stars A Truly WONDERFUL Book!
By Amazon Customer on November 1, 2015

I cannot recommend this book enough! As a teacher, it is rare to find a book with content that helped me to spark so much animated discussion among students. With interesting photographs and clear instruction, this was a fast, easy, and fascinating read. I just wish I came across it sooner! I have seen such an increase in my students' critical thinking skills and their abilities to think deeper about a primary source, such as "Who is in it? What is their story? What can we learn from them?" It is this curiosity that has even transcended to other areas of study. This book is definitely a gem to encourage students to be life-long learners!

5.0 out of 5 stars A True Gem
By S. Wineburg on July 4, 2015

No teacher who wants to develop students' intellects can afford to ignore this book. This book has what to teach the Common Core test makers about what real thinking is all about. Written in sparkling prose with no jargon, it provides tested strategies for teaching students to see the world in a new light. I can't recommend it highly enough! (Full disclosure: I learned about this book when the authors asked me to write a forward. I turn down most such requests. But after reading two pages, I was hooked).

5.0 out of 5 stars A must for every teacher and school library
By Kimberly J Steiner on September 19, 2015

This book is a fantastic endeavor which teaches children to see and to think critically. Written in clear prose, Examining the Evidence helps children understand and break down the thinking process by walking them through critical analysis (in down to earth terms) of the medium most familiar to them: the photograph. Visual literacy is very important in the Common Core, being critical to document based questions and essays (DBQs). There are splendid examples here to support visual literacy, and the authors clearly explain the key critical thinking skills: analyzing, evaluating, generating, associating, hypothesizing, clarifying, interpreting, determining, understanding, inferring, explaining, developing, deciding, reasoning, connecting, and generalizing. These skills are not only integral to understanding visuals and our world but also used to read texts (being an interactive reader) and writer (generating ideas, coming up with a thesis, understanding what questions the reader might ask while reading what one has written and clarifying areas of doubt.) While critical thinking about reading texts or one's own writing process is so hard for students, this book introduces the same relevant contexts with interesting photographs. This is an approach that will compel children to see and learn.

5.0 out of 5 stars You'll want this book!
By K. Cantone on September 19, 2015

I bought this book at a brick and mortar location in Chicago last year, and have used it and recommended it to others ever since. Although the educational strategies in it are designed to enhance teaching using Common Core standards, they are not specifically wedded to the standards. Instead, the authors offer real tools to make lessons for teaching the use of primary sources interesting and fun for students, which I think is much more useful. It is written in a straight-forward and easy-to-read style that educators at any level will appreciate! I will go one step further and recommend it to anyone!

5.0 out of 5 stars Great Resource!
By Karie Brown on September 11, 2015

This was the book I used when I planned for my middle school social studies class. It was particularly helpful in helping me find ways to engage students who were not great readers. It helped my lesson become not only accessible to all students but challenging and enriching. It helped me train my students to be better thinkers and questioners. My students now will look at any 'primary source' and question, what was the perspective of the person or group who presented it. What message are they trying to convey? Can I trust that message? I was so excited when I had students asking me, where they could get a copy (of a certain source) so they could take it home and show their grandmother. This book helped me to rigorous and fun history lessons that had an impact on their lives. It is very accessible and easy to fit in to a teacher's busy schedule. I think it would be great for elementary teachers as well. I highly recommend it!

5.0 out of 5 stars A Must for Teaching Young Historians and Journalists!
By Karen Falk on July 2, 2015

This is a terrific guide to helping students learn about the value of original research. It is important that students are taught to go beyond secondary resources to make their own judgments about what, how and why things happen. Discovery through primary materials can be an exciting detective hunt, and Hilary Mac Austin and Kathleen Thompson's Examining the Evidence helps teachers share the thrill of unraveling a mystery and the feeling of a direct, personal connection with the past.

5.0 out of 5 stars Every Teacher Should Read This Book
By Mike Nowak on July 1, 2015

Thanks to the Internet, we live in a world of instant information. Would that we could access, at the same time, the critical thinking needed to process that information accurately. It takes a scant few minutes on any social media site to understand that we have produced generations of people who accept without comment almost anything that to them "feels" like a fact. That's why Examining the Evidence is so important. It teaches our educators how to teach their students how to cut through the clutter, myths and misinformation that all too often pass for knowledge in the 21st Century. Austin and Thompson methodically and brilliantly walk us through the basics of understanding primary sources, using ordinary and iconic photos, documents and memorabilia to show how the clues to understanding and interpreting these historical artifacts are almost always hiding in plain sight. While this book is intended for educators, I think that if more journalists had a grasp of the fundamentals of investigation that are presented here, the public's understanding of what constitutes science and what is considered hearsay would have been settled long ago.

5.0 out of 5 stars If they're not teaching this book where your kids go to school, then buy a copy and teach it to them yourself.

By W.J. Walter on November 7, 2014

This is a practical book, a tool box of a kind. It is intended to enable teachers to encourage and deepen their students' natural curiosity by means of seven straight-forward strategies for learning to look closely at things (i.e. texts and images). It provides worked out examples of each of these strategies as well as practical suggestions for lesson plans and classroom activities. Although the book is intended for teachers, but it will be of interest to parents, too, and, in fact, to anyone engaged in the business of raising or mentoring a child.

What is really striking about Examining the Evidence is the way the authors have managed to present some of the basic techniques of critical scholarship in a down to earth manner. They have done this by maintaining a consistent focus on the fundamental question of what does (and doesn't) count as a "primary source". The idea that some texts and some images are closer to what they describe and depict than others is not a difficult one; even very young people can appreciate the difference between a story told by someone who was there and one that is hearsay. Simple as it may be, acknowledging this distinction is an important step to a process that can lead to a genuine kind of critical thinking because someone who really gets this point is in a position to appreciate the more challenging idea that this sort of closeness is not the same thing as truth, and that even primary sources can and should be scrutinized for bias, deliberate manipulation and inadvertent inaccuracy. This recognition implies, in turn, that we ourselves may bring preconceptions and attitudes to our experience of what we read and see that may hinder our ability to understand, and that we ought to do what we can to shake off those blinders. This is plainly a very serious business, and readers, as they finish Chapter 8 of Examining the Evidence, will have no difficulty in understanding why Sam Wineberg, in his Foreword to the book, calls it a “manual for citizenship.”

One final point: these thick and heavy-footed paragraphs should not be taken as being in any way indicative of the writing you will find in Examining the Evidence. Austin and Thompson employ a clear and concise prose style that never gets in the way of what they are trying to say and makes their book a pleasure to read.

5.0 out of 5 stars A Thinking Toolbox for Understanding "What Happened?"
By FormerComposer on September 19, 2015

In an age where the lack of critical thinking and the paucity of intellectual heft is widely bemoaned, there are a couple of bright spots. The massive popularity of TV procedural and forensic themed shows such as Law & Order, NCIS, and Criminal Min ds indicates that there are still age-old scratches to be itched: "What happened?" "How did it happen?"

In this wonderful, teacher's choice award winning work, Kathleen Thompson and Hilary Mac Austin present a wide variety of strategies, examples, and tutorials that will help teach even our youngest citizen learners how to navigate the natural and human created landscapes. Whether one is doing history, sociology, anthropology, genealogy, literature, art, politics, or science, being able to uncover and understand the evidence is crucial for useful conclusions and sensible policies.

With context appropriate nods to the Common Core Standards, the authors show how many specific techniques can fit into the broader mission of educating our children (and ourselves.) Regardless of how much you think you already know, you are bound to learn something new from this book. No matter what your field of endeavor, there are tools here you can use.



Foreword by Sam Wineburg
Read the foreword to the book, written by eminent scholar in the field of history education Sam Wineburg.
Get a sense of what this book is about and whether it could help you teach with primary sources in your classroom.
Support Material
The book containsimages and text from many sources. We've included a number of photographs from our own collection. We've posted high-resolution versions of those images here as part of our printable posters collection.
Examining the Evidence Main Page