Primary and Secondary Resources

Contributor: Danielle Childers. Lesson ID: 10127

Have you met Abraham Lincoln? Do you know anything about him? What was his impact on history? A full picture is given by primary and secondary sources. Learn the value of both and write a short story!


United States, Writing

learning style
personality style
Golden Retriever
Grade Level
Intermediate (3-5)
Lesson Type
Quick Query

Lesson Plan - Get It!


"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

This is an excerpt from one of the most famous speeches in U.S. history. It is Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. Have you heard it? He gave the speech in 1963, but most people today have heard of the speech and could probably even recite some of it to you.

  • How do so many people know about this speech?

People know of the speech because we have many sources to tell us about it.

There is video of it, we have first-hand written documents from people who were there, we have newspaper articles, and even textbooks talk about this speech. And if we search for it on the Internet, countles sources pop up as resources related to this speech.

There are two main types of sources or resources used to explain events in the past:

The first is called a primary source.

  • What does "primary" mean? Think about primary school. Primary school is the youngest or the first grades of school. So, a primary source is just that — it is the first source, meaning a person at the event is creating the information.
  • The primary resource represents the details that document the event, describing the event "first-hand."
  • A video of the speech, a diary entry of a little boy listening to it that day, and a newspaper article written by a reporter at the event, are all examples of primary sources.
  • Can you think of another primary source? What about a photograph of Martin Luther King, Jr., in front of the Lincoln Memorial that day? Would an interview of a spectator be a primary source? Yes, these are all examples of primary sources because they are all first-person accounts of the event.
  • Why do you think primary resources are important ways to learn about history? They give us the feeling of what that event was like.
  • Watch this video of part of MLK Jr.’s "I Have a Dream" speech (Martin Luther King, Jr. I Have A Dream Speech, posted by Ilya Gokadze):

  • How does listening to that video make you feel?
  • Did you notice how many people were gathered together to listen to his speech?
  • Does that make it feel like it was an important speech?

We can learn a lot about an event in history by investigating the primary resources.

Another resource that describes an event is called a secondary source.

  • A secondary source provides a "bigger picture" of an event rather than one person's perspective of the event.
  • A secondary source is recorded after the event has occurred. For example, textbooks are a popular secondary source. The authors of a textbook research and record the secondary source relying on the information presented within the primary source.
  • This newspaper article by Michiko Kakutani from The New York Times, The Lasting Power of Dr. King's Dream Speech, is an example of a secondary source. Though it has direct quotes from MLK, Jr., it was written in 2013 by someone who was not present at the time of the speech.
  • With secondary sources, we can have a broader understanding of the events, like why it happened and what effect it had.
  • Head to this King, Martin Luther Jr. 1929-1968 page on and click on the blue-colored topic called, “I Have a Dream.” Read the article. Why is the encyclopedia a secondary source?

  • Are both types of sources important to history?

Yes, both types of sources are important because together they help carve the pictures of historical events in our mind.

Here is a great video titled, Primary vs. Secondary Sources, from Minnesota History, explaining in more detail what primary and secondary sources are.


Continue on to the Got It? section to do some digging for sources!

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