The Primary Source Librarian

Dedicated to Excellence in Teaching with Primary Sources

Three Questions

Sometimes simple is best. When I introduce skills for asking questions of primary sources, I usually start with a three-question form from the Library of Congress that is no longer all that easy to locate.

Thinking about Primary Sources

(Click the above link for a PDF version.)

Why do I keep going back to this early form?

  1. It’s easy to remember three questions.
  2. It works for all ages and with all types of primary sources (not just visual).
  3. It’s helpful for distinguishing between direct observation and inference (a vital critical thinking and literacy skill).
  4. It’s pretty.
  5. It makes it OK to wonder.
  6. It encourages further inquiry.

Now I’ll admit that there are other graphic organizers “out there” that teachers love. For example, the “Analysis Worksheets” from the National Archives (NARA) have been widely shared, including by me.

I also share a well done set of “Teacher Guides and Analysis Tools” developed by the Educational Outreach team at the Library of Congress. Like the NARA worksheets, these tools separate primary source formats and ask questions specific to those formats – books, manuscripts, maps, motion pictures, oral histories, photographs and prints, political cartoons, sheet music or song sheets, and sound recordings. That can be really helpful to both teachers and students.

But I still keep coming back to the three-question organizer. For the same reasons. Mostly because it’s simple.

The three questions remind me of the “Visible Thinking” work at Project Zero (Harvard University Graduate School of Education). In particular, the thinking routine suggested for exploring “works of art and other interesting things” (in this case, primary sources) starts with three simple words:




I believe these three words correspond perfectly to the three questions in the  Thinking about Primary Sources organizer:

See=What do you observe?

Think=What do you think you know?

Wonder=What do you want to find out?

Do you have a favorite way to help students think about primary sources?



Leave a Reply