Using Historical Primary Sources to Strengthen Civic Argument Writing

2024 National Council for History Education (NCHE) Conference, Cleveland, OH



Teachers in our Philadelphia Writing Project network are engaging in inquiries and creating curriculum resources to support civically engaged argument writing in K-12 classrooms. 

Our emerging resources draw upon:

Primary Sources for Civic Argument Writing

One area of inquiry involves how teachers might use historical primary sources to support civic argument writing about contemporary issues.

Teachers could teach argument writing and encourage students to enter ongoing civic conversations without engaging directly with historical texts.* Contemporary news and informational texts may often reference the history of an issue—although many may not. In our work, we're wondering: 

As teachers make decisions about why and how they might (or might not) use specific texts, we are balancing trade-offs particularly related to how much time they might dedicate to a specific project, topic, or text. Therefore, the benefits and challenges of using primary sources should factor into this decision-making process.

*Note: We’re grouping texts into two categories: (1) contemporary news and informational articles and (2) older texts that are often collected and digitized by museums and libraries. However, we recognize that these groupings have blurry boundaries. 

General Benefits

Analyzing primary sources in units of study may help students understand that:


Many civic conversations have been going on for a while! Lots of people have said a lot of things about this issue. We may benefit from learning from those ideas as we develop our own arguments. 


Cultural contexts, norms, and ideas may have shifted in ways that influence an issue, how we see an issue, and how we talk about an issue (e.g., women own property and vote, governments certify same-sex marriages, we use different words to describe differences in abilities and disabilities, roadways were once shared by multiple modes of transportation without traffic signals and speed limits).


While cultural contexts and norms have shifted, there may have always been people who advocated for ideas that are now more widely accepted (e.g., women owned property and participated in governmental processes in some communities before those rights were restricted, some communities have always embraced same-sex relationships and/or had expansive views on gender and sexuality, enslaved peoples and allies always resisted and contested slavery). 


Primary sources may serve as mentor texts (e.g., political cartoons, photographs) for the kinds of argumentative texts students create themselves.


Benefits for Specific Topics and Text Sets

For specific units of study, there are specific understandings that students can develop by analyzing primary sources:

Benefits of Using Primary Sources with Civic Argument Writing for Specific Topics and Sources

Potential Challenges — and Opportunities That Emerge from Addressing Them

Teaching with primary sources, particularly outside of history classrooms and for supporting civic argument writing, may involve addressing challenges. These challenges may also lead to more expansive opportunities for learning.


Some historical texts may include language that we don’t use today, which may make them more difficult to read.


Students can (and should) learn about how language and its uses have changed over time.

Some historical texts may include language—and associated ideas—that we might still use today but that are less acceptable in current civic discourse. By reading these texts, we are allowing the language (and associated ideas) to persist, even if we are seeking to refute them.

Students can (and should) learn that political and social change occurs, often through the advocacy of organized groups. We also must recognize how harmful ideas may persist.

Some historical texts may use formats and genres that we’re less familiar with today, which may make them more difficult to read.

Students can still engage with somewhat-difficult-to-read texts by employing comprehension strategies that they would use with more familiar texts. This would ostensibly strengthen and reinforce their uses of those strategies.

Historical texts were created social, cultural, and political contexts, which all influence how we might read and understand them.

Learning history is important! Making space for social studies in the curriculum and school day is imperative, even as schools prioritize other tested subjects.

Introducing students to issues that have been discussed for a long time may engender frustration that these issues haven’t been solved yet. This may be particularly frustrating for members of minoritized or marginalized communities. Young people might wonder: If people have been fighting for equality for so long, why are we still fighting for it?


People have organized, resisted, and advocated on a range of issues and have shifted social practices and norms. We can learn from their example to continue to advocate for the change we seek in the world.

Conference Poster

2024 NCHE Conference — Using Historical Primary Sources to Strengthen Civic Argument Writing



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