Annotating Primary Sources (Inductive Study)

Inductive Study is individual and group discussion-based observations and insights from personal study are encouraged. It is in the discussion, for many students, that the lesson begins to “gel.” The discussion confirms, clarifies, and corrects as each student seeks to discover truth for themselves. Discussion of the sources helps to seal them in our minds and sharing application encourages individuals to live out what they are learning. In this approach, understanding what it means is more important than any individual facts.

What This is Not

This is not a process that is intended to be used for any document. You will only use this for documents that you are going analyze in depth.


Observation: discover what it says

Observation teaches you to see exactly what the source says. It is the basis for accurate interpretation and correct application. Observation answers the question what does the source say?

  • Ask the “5 W’s and an H” As you study any source, train yourself to constantly ask: Who? What? When? Where? Why? How? These questions are the building blocks of precise observation, which is essential for accurate interpretation.
  • Mark key words and phrases (view figure) A keyword is one that is essential to the text. Keywords and phrases are repeated to convey the author’s point or purpose for writing. For example, notice that some form of the word rights is used three times. Keywords can be marked using symbols, colors, or a combination of the two.
  • Make lists this can be one of the most enlightening things you do as you study. Lists reveal specific focuses and highlight important concepts. The Constitution, for example, contains a simple list regarding the role of the government in the Preamble, shown by numbering the items in the text. It is also helpful to make a list of what you learn about each keyword or person you mark.
  • Watch for contrasts and comparisons paint word pictures to make it easier to remember what you’ve learned.
  • Note expressions of time the relationship of events in time often shed light on the true meaning of the text. Marking “time” will help you see the sequence or timing of events and lead accurate interpretation of source.
  • Geographic Locations often it is helpful to mark geographical locations which tell you where an event takes place.
  • Mark terms of conclusion such as therefore, thus and for this reason indicate that a conclusion or summary is being made. You may want to underline them in the text.

Interpretation: discover what it means

  • Remember that context rules. The word “context” means that which goes with the text. If you lay the solid foundation of observation, you will be prepared to consider each verse in the light of the surrounding text. As you study, ask yourself: Is my interpretation of this source consistent with the theme, purpose, and structure of the book in which it is found? Am I considering the historic and cultural context? Discover what the author is saying, don’t add to his meaning.
  • Don’t base your convictions on an obscure source. An obscure passage is one in which the meaning is not easily understood. Because they are difficult to understand they should not be used as a basis for establishing meaning.
  • Don’t use today’s norms to evaluate historical sources. Presentism is a historical term meaning judging past actions by today’s standards, or uncritical adherence to present-day attitudes, especially the tendency to interpret past events in terms of modern values and concepts. We all too often color history with the lens of our current prejudices.

The first step in application is to find out what the source says on any particular subject through accurate observation and correct interpretation of the text. Once you understand what the source teaches, you may find things that can be applied to other historical documents or understanding the decisions utilized to make that decision.

  1. Select document
  2. Decide Analysis Type (Abbreviated, In-Depth)
    1. Abbreviated is designed to quickly analysis a single document or a group of documents.
    2. In-Depth focus on the process of discovering more than the discovery itself.



  1. Format document (Document Template)
  2. Find Key Words (MonkeyLearn Keyword)
  3. Printout Document (3 hole punched, double sided)
  4. Vocabulary List (Rewordify)
  5. Printout Historical Analysis Sheet


  1. Students skim the document looking for answers to the Historical Analysis Sheet.

In Depth


  1. Format document (Document Template)
  2. Printout Document (3 hole punched, double sided)
  3. Vocabulary Sheet (Rewordify)
  4. Printout Historical Analysis Sheet
  5. Define three types of facts to glean from the source (i.e. People, Events, Grievances, Instruction, Geography, Sentiment).
  6. Modify the Facts Template with appropriate categories


  1. Students skim the document looking for answers for the Historical Analysis Sheet.