3 How to Read Primary Sources

This document is about how to read critically. Every piece of writing, no matter how simple, aims to convince its audience. It wants something from you: maybe something benevolent, maybe not. A wise reader needs not only to understand what the author is saying, but what he or she wants to accomplish. This requires reading closely, with an awareness of your own thought processes as you read, and an enhanced consideration of the writer’s goals and strategy. Such skill will serve you well every time you read an advertisement, listen to a political speech, follow the news, or even just watch a TV drama. It is also especially important in history, where we must read documents from and about many different kinds of people and places.

In this course, we’ll be reading two very different types of writing: academic writing, such as articles, textbooks or other secondary material that is written in a modern style, and historical documents, which may be written in older, unfamiliar styles. This guide looks at historical documents. It presents habits of mind (and eye and hand) you can develop to better comprehend an author’s communication, purpose, and context.

Looking for Cues

Editorial Cues

The historical documents you encounter in this course will most likely be in a source reader. These readers are prepared by a modern editor. They usually contain verbal and visual cues inserted by the editor. The editor usually gives the source selection a title, and may divide it into sub-sections, each with a header. There may be helpful footnotes. There will almost certainly be a brief introduction, telling you a bit about the source and why it is important. You should use all these cues, but it’s vital to recognize that they aren’t actually part of the source. They are editorial apparatus.

You will need to recognize where the editorial matter ends, and the historical document begins. This boundary is usually set off in some way by the editor – a change in type, layout, or spacing.

Older Writing, Older Cues 

Our current norms for writing have evolved over many years. The verbal cues (like thesis statements) embedded in modern writing are as much a kind of technology as the photographs and colorful fonts that surround them. Older writing, based on simpler printing (or handwriting) technologies, and different stylistic norms, had different sorts of cues. When you read historical documents, you will need to identify what cues (if any) they use. For example, in medieval writing, paragraphs often had a red letter in their first word. Older techniques of signaling may look primitive: for example, sections may have big Roman numerals, or all-caps. Some documents may lack any cues we are familiar with, and you will have to suffer through without them. Regardless, any document will have some kind of logical flow, even if that logic and the style in which it is expressed differs from our modern expectations.

Close Reading

One of the most important skills in critical reading (and one of the most difficult) is to slow down. In casual reading, we often skim and skip. We jump to the author’s main idea (or what we think the main idea is). Once we “know” what the author is saying, we ignore other details that don’t quite fit. If we encounter a confusing sentence or statement, we just let our eye slide over it. This kind of fast reading is essential in our busy, information-filled lives. For familiar topics, using familiar cues, on familiar texts, it serves us well. But fast reading is poison when confronting a document that contains unfamiliar ideas, uses obscure words, or follows an unfamiliar style. In addition to skimming for structure and main ideas, you should also read the whole piece closely, paying careful attention to difficult sections.

Slow Down

When reading critically, you need to slow down. Once you have decided to read a section closely, make your eye focus on every word. Make your brain process each thought. Don’t skip ahead. One really good way of doing this is with a finger or a note card. (A technique I use.) Put the card under the line you’re reading, so that it covers up everything else, and you can’t skip ahead. Advance it slowly.

Words, Words, Words

You will often encounter unfamiliar words. Don’t just skip them. If an author is using an unfamiliar word often, chances are it is an important clue to their thinking:

Use a dictionary. Academic writing often contains words that are not part of everyday English. In everyday reading, you can afford to ignore an unfamiliar word or two. But that’s very dangerous when reading critically. So look the words up in a dictionary. Perhaps write the definition above the word in your book, so you don’t forget between looking it up and rereading the sentence. (I do this when translating.) E-readers will let you highlight and post a note.

Use a GOOD dictionary. Your ordinary, Webster’s dictionary isn’t going to cut it. Historical documents may contain really unusual words, maybe ones that nobody has used for hundreds of years. They may also include words that look familiar, but have unfamiliar meanings. (For example, nowadays the word “minister” means “preacher” or “priest.” But in older documents, it often means “government official,” as in “prime minister.” If you don’t know this, you may think a document is about religion when it’s about government business.) I suggest looking up truly obscure words in a big dictionary like the Oxford English Dictionary, which is particularly helpful in including historical meanings, and telling you when that meaning entered the language.

Realize that Dictionaries are Fallible. A dictionary only tells you how words have been used, by most people, most of the time. Sometimes a particular source or author may use a word in a way that is not standard. Perhaps the author is a scientist, and is using it in a specialized sense. Perhaps the artist is a lawyer, using a term of art, such as “guilt” which has a specific legal meaning. Perhaps, the word is used in a funny way in a particular culture or area. Perhaps the author is just eccentric. But you should be prepared to determine what a word might mean by its context, and use this to temper the “official” dictionary definition.

Say What?

Historical writing is likely to use a more complex style than you are used to using. If you are having trouble following a sentence, break it down grammatically. What is the main verb? What is the main subject? What sub-clauses are there? How do they relate to the main clause?

If you remember how make sentence diagrams, you may find it useful to sketch out a troublesome sentence on some scratch paper.

Try rephrasing the sentence into modern English. How would someone express the same idea today?

Styles of writing have changed over time. Nowadays, we favor short sentences that resemble ordinary speech. In Ye Olden Times ™ people preferred sentences that resembled Latin. The Latin periodic sentence is one such abomination from the shambling past you may encounter. A periodic sentence presents a series of subordinate clauses, qualifiers, and conditions, culminating in a main verb somewhere near the end. When (or if) you encounter such a monster, you need to slow down and apply the techniques above.


Comprehending an author’s message is only the first step in reading critically. You still need to figure out why the author sent it: the message’s intended audience, its purpose, and its context. This analysis is the exciting part of the process, and the most useful.

Every piece of writing has an author, an audience and message. (You may know these elements as the Rhetorical Triangle, but it’s not necessary to be so formal. It’s just a way of affirming the basic elements of human communication.) As you read, you should think about each of these pieces simultaneously.


Who is writing? For historical documents, this is hugely important. A document written by a king will be very different than a document written by a peasant or a priest.

When you read a historical document, try to find out as much as you can about the author. Many primary source readers will contain a small biography at the start of the selection. You could also look up the author online.

What suppositions can you make about the author based on his or her background? How is it likely to affect the knowledge or other resources available to him or her? How is it likely to shape his or her attitudes, prejudices, and goals?

What can you tell about the author just based on his or her own statements? Often, an author’s choice of words reveals a great deal about their mental world and goals.

The same questions apply to modern authors as well. Historians may be liberal or conservative, religious or secular, or favor one group over another in their analysis. Even the authors of textbooks have a background and point of view that affects their selection of facts.


Who does the author expect will be reading their work? If you are reading a historical document, to whom is it addressed? If the author doesn’t say, can you guess? Is the audience part of the author’s own group (whatever that is) or an outsider? How does the author seem to feel about his audience? Is he or she hostile? Condescending? Flattering? How does he or she seem to feel they will regard him or her in turn?

For academic writing, this question is less urgent, but you may notice a difference in content between articles specialists write for each other and articles written for students or for a general audience.


Every piece of writing has a purpose. Even if I’m just writing myself a grocery, my scribbling serves to remind me what to buy.

Much writing aims to convince someone to adopt an opinion or to perform an action. What action does the author want the audience to perform? What view do they want them to adopt?

Look at how the author constructs his or her message. What arguments do they employ to convince their audience? Why do they think these arguments might be persuasive? Do they make an emotional appeal? What emotions do they invoke, why, and how?

You may ask yourself: who benefits if the author gets what he or she wants? Humans being what they are, you should perhaps be skeptical whether the author has some hidden purpose.

Some of our historical documents will have huge, raw messages: to declare a war, to exterminate an enemy, or to promote a religion. Others may be more mundane: to describe an event or purchase a product. Regardless, your job as a critical reader is to figure out what that purpose is.

Even our academic writing has a message, although it is often more subtle than historical documents. In articles and books, scholars want to convince their peers that their theories are correct or to adopt a particular point of view about a historical event. Textbooks, by their selection of material, aim not only to convey raw data, but to provide a convincing interpretation of that data.


For historical documents, reading critically means placing author, audience and message into their historical context. The author and the audience may have lived in times and places very different than our own. Their lives, their knowledge, and their assumptions might be very different than our own. So you need to carefully construct a mental picture of their world, and then relate what they say and what they do to your knowledge of that world.

Ask yourself, based on your readings, what do you know of the historical events surrounding the source? Was there a war? A plague? A technological innovation? A social change?

How was society structured? What part of it did author and audience occupy? How might that affect their view points?

This can be quite tricky. Our guesses about the past might be wrong. But such imaginative reconstructions are necessary to fully appreciate historical sources.

Circular Reading

When reading critically, you should circulate through these questions and techniques as you proceed. Normally, when we read casually, we start at the first word, read to the last word, and then put the writing away. But when reading critically, you will often need to read the writing several times: perhaps once to start, then again to identify cues. You may want to read any difficult portions again slowly, with a dictionary at hand.

Once you think you have a good idea what the author is saying, you should confirm that your theory is correct. Don’t simply assume that your first impression is complete. Look at the source again. What have you missed? What doesn’t fit with your understanding? What do you wish you knew? These are the areas to which you should pay extra attention. Particularly in historical sources, the author may be expressing a viewpoint which is radically different or alien to your own, one which it may take you several tries to process and identify. You don’t have to agree with the author, but you do need to understand what he or she actually says.

As you read and use these techniques, figure out which ones work for you and which ones do not. Not everyone’s mind works in the same way. My favorite technique may simply annoy you, or vice versa. But the most important principle remains: keep returning to the writing, identify any gaps in your understanding, and puzzle them out.

Reading as Judo

The critical reading skills you learn in this course can be applied to every message you encounter in life. Think of it as self-defense. If every author has a purpose, then every message they aim at you has a purpose too: whether they want you to buy something, to vote for someone, to believe something, or do something. You need to be able to clearly receive their message, and then to understand why it was sent and what it intends. Critical reading is a tool that enables you to process, comprehend, accept, and reject messages thoughtfully. If you can process the complex language and difficult viewpoints found in history, you can process anything.

Critical Reading Checklist

Please use this checklist as you read, as a way of keeping these techniques in mind. Not every element is relevant to every source.


Critical Reading Strategy Yes No


Have I identified what kind of source I am reading? Is it a contemporary academic source, a historical source, or something else?


Have I identified any editorial clues (headings, sub-headings, fonts and so forth) in the reading?

Have I identified the boundary between the editorial matter (if any) and the historical source?

Have I identified older cues specific to this historical source’s writing style?

Have I used the various cues to help determine the historical source’s argument and structure?

Close Reading

Have I read the writing slowly enough?

Have I identified those parts of the reading which I find most difficult?

Have I attempted to parse difficult sentences grammatically?

Have I looked up difficult words in a dictionary?

Have I checked the dictionary definition versus the use of the word in context?

Have I identified difficult stylistic features of the text? Can I translate them into modern English?

Analysis [Historical Sources]

Have I identified the author of the writing?

Have I identified the author’s background? What do I know and what can I guess?

Have I considered how the author’s identity affects his or her message?

Have I identified the intended audience of the writing?

Have I considered how the audience’s identity affects the author’s message?

Have I identified the author’s message?

Have I considered how the author’s likely purpose affects the message?

Have I identified the context (events and society) in which the writing was composed?

Have I considered how this context affects the message?

Circular Reading

Have I reviewed the writing after my first reading?

Have I identified where my initial understanding was incorrect or inadequate?

Have I reread and corrected my understanding of these portions?

Have I made notes on items to remember?


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