Teaching Context with Primary Sources – Contextual Clues and Literacy

On July 4th, 2017, NPR tweeted out each line of the Declaration of Independence, which caused some misinterpretation of their intentions when Twitter users read some of the lines out of context. This got me thinking how important it is to teach about context during literacy exercises.

Quotes, especially online, can often be taken out of context and used in order to serve a specific purpose. For first and second language learners alike, it is important to recognize contextual clues to fully understand the primary source. As educators, we can do this by creating a learner-centered environment.


Classroom Activity

For this primary source activity, choose an image that has at least two people in it, like this one with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony from the Women Pioneers in American Memory Collection. Don’t give them any information about the photograph yet.

Using the Observe, Reflect, Question primary source analysis technique, students will use questions to find contextual clues:

  • Who are these people?
  • Who isn’t in the photograph?
  • How old are they?
  • What is their relationship?
  • What is the setting?
  • In which decade or century was this photo taken?
  • What might they be discussing?

Group students together in pairs and ask them to answer these questions together in writing and cite the “evidence” for their conclusions. Then, engage in a class discussion about how they came to their conclusions about the photograph. Reveal the actual contextual information about the image, compare it with their own conclusions, and discuss the importance of recognizing contextual clues.

The purpose of this activity is to find logical inconsistencies in their thinking and build evidence-based argumentation skills. Adapt this activity for your own classroom situations by giving students a short dialogue from a book they are reading. For creative writing and story-building, have students create their own short conversations to fine-tune their story with the dialogue they use in their story.