Analyzing Primary Sources: Close Observation & Purposeful Questions

The Teaching with the Library of Congress blog provides several ideas for inspiring close observation and engaging students with primary sources, including having students make personal connections to an item, look for clues to time period and authorship, look for details that provide evidence of their thinking, and ask purposeful questions. Close observation of images is great practice for close reading of text, a strategy emphasized in the Common Core State Standards, in particular CCSS reading anchor standards 1, 5, 6, and 7. Below are some questions to help guide students as they engage with primary sources and practice close observation.

Make personal connections

  • How does this image make you feel? Why do you think it makes you feel that way?
  • What would you be thinking, feeling, or doing if you were in this image (imagine you are a person or a thing)?
  • What does this image make you wonder about? What did you notice that sparked your curiosity?

Look for clues to the time period

  • Are there items, materials or technologies in the image that were only available at or after a certain point in history? How do you know?
  • Are there people in the image doing things specific to a time period? How do you know?
  • Are they wearing clothing of a certain time period? How do you know?

Look for details that support your thinking

  • What do you see?
  • How do the people and/or things that you see relate to each other?
  • Who created this image? Why do you think the creator chose to include these details?
  • What might have been left out of the frame?
  • What do you think the creator might have wanted you to think or feel when looking at this image?
  • Does the arrangement or presentation (lighting, angle, etc.) of the details affect how you think or feel? How?
Ask purposeful questions
  • What don’t you know?
  • What questions could you ask to learn more?

More primary source analysis strategies