Selecting, Excerpting & Modifying Primary Sources

Primary Source Documents

Have you ever wanted to use a primary source document with students but hesitated because you felt the struggle to comprehend the text would be the focus of the task rather than text analysis? In a TweetChat about teaching with primary sources, middle school social studies teacher Chris Heffernan (@cheffernan75) articulated the dilemma, “This has been a challenge in my building. Some say adapt & keep meaning. Others want them to experience original text. I’m torn.”

While some may say that it is never acceptable to modify a primary sources, sometimes doing so can make difficult texts accessible to struggling readers. Below we provide a summary of best practices.



  • retain original context or, in other words, make sure the meaning of the source has not been altered
  • use ellipses to show that text has been redacted unless too many will interfere with reading
  • inform students that the document has been modified and provide them with the original document as well so they can see what has been changed
  • include bibliographic information so students know where the source came from, who created/published it and when it was created/published


  • devise and introduce focus question for students to keep in mind as they read
  • use excerpts from 200-300 words at first
  • break document into sections with different groups responsible for different sections (h/t Bill Chapman @classroomtools)
  • provide brief background information
  • include a reading guide
  • advise students to focus on key vocabulary (see presenting below) and not to worry about other unknown terms


  • cut confusing or nonessential phrases and sentences
  • modify complex syntax
  • define difficult vocabulary or provide a word bank
  • conventionalize spelling, capitalization and punctuation


  • use at least 16 pt font
  • use double line spacing or at least 1.5
  • add in significant margins
  • boldface or italicize words to signal challenging or important vocabulary

If you are still unsure about modifying documents take a look at the resources below, which provide solid arguments, best practices and examples.