Teaching with Informational Text: Historic Newspapers from the Library of Congress

by Guest Blogger
August 1st, 2013

By Stephen Wesson

Earlier this week, the Core Knowledge Blog explained the need to guide students’ online research and highlighted the Library of Congress’s Primary Source Sets. In this post, which originally appeared on Teaching with the Library of Congress, Stephen Wesson offers ideas for engaging, Common Core-aligned lessons based on historical newspapers. Stephen Wesson is an educational resource specialist at the Library of Congress with extensive experience in education media. 


The St. Paul Daily Globe, November 11, 1887


Here’s a question for anyone teaching with informational text, including teachers working to meet Common Core State Standards:

Where can you find a wide range of authors writing from varied points of view, making arguments with appeals to evidence, rich with rhetorical strategies and figurative language, often using a number of different media, all in one package? In historic newspapers, that’s where.

Newspapers from the 19th and 20th centuries are rich sources of informational text in a dizzying array of formats. In a typical paper from 1900, you might find factual reporting, fire-breathing editorials, biographical profiles, literary nonfiction, weather reports, box scores, charts, graphs, maps, cartoons, and a poem about current events—maybe even all on the same page! The subjects covered allow for connections across the curriculum, and the stories can prompt explorations of point of view, interpretation of language, analysis of an argument, and textual structure.

An easy way to dive deep into historic newspapers is to explore Chronicling America on the Library’s Web site, where you’ll find free access to millions of historic American newspaper pages from 1836-1922. (The Teaching with the Library of Congress blog has written about Chronicling America in a previous post.)

The Topics in Chronicling America list lets teachers quickly find a number of articles on a single topic, such as the Haymarket Affair of 1886, and make comparisons between coverage in a number of papers from around the country, or even within a single newspaper.

  • Ask students to select an article that makes a strong argument, such as “Chicago’s Wild Mobs” or “A Human Tiger.” Challenge students to identify the specific claims the article makes, and to see if each claim is backed by at least one piece of evidence. How does the amount of evidence cited change students’ ideas of a particular article’s authority?
  • Find two articles from different newspapers that express very different points of view on a single issue or event, like “Great Day for Labor” and “Mob Violence Feared.” Encourage your students to compare and contrast the methods used by the two writers to make their case. Do they cite different evidence? Or do they use different persuasive techniques?
  • Newspapers of 100 years ago were full of cartoons, maps, portraits, and other visual elements. Select a visual, and ask students to compare it with a newspaper text account of the same event. (For Haymarket, they might compare “The First Dynamite Bomb Thrown in America” with “The Anarchists’ Lives.”) What does each medium do better than the other? How much more convincing do your students find one or the other?

How have you used historic newspapers to help your students explore informational text?


The Fort Worth Daily Gazette, November 12, 1887



  1. What appalls me about this example is that it is so obvious that we did exactly the same thing with real papers 50 and 60 years ago. A far more interesting story would be to ask students today to create a video on the same subject and to challenge what kind of data they’d need to make that video meet the literary, factual, and journalistic standards of a given article from 1920 or 1910…. It’s NOT “just the facts, man” but it’s an awful lot more. And the press of 1920 or 1910 or 1880 was a lot more diligent than today’s “nightly news.” THAT is what kids should find out, and not just “what happened.”

    Comment by Joe Beckmann — August 1, 2013 @ 3:03 pm

  2. Joe’s reaction made me wonder if he is an educator. I was not appalled reading this post, but rather engaged to learn about this resource. Helping students conduct research with high quality sources gets complicated and the historical newspapers site goes into my hopper for the new school year. This will be helpful to the teachers in my building too.

    Comment by School Librarian — August 1, 2013 @ 10:29 pm

  3. The Library of Congress resources are a great example of how you can use historical materials to teach not just history but also how to use the internet for primary research. They also have a great email you can sign up for topical resources.

    Comment by DC Parent — August 4, 2013 @ 5:59 pm

  4. Joe, I think you meant to say ““just the facts, ma’am” not man if that is Dragnet reference. I don’t have anything against students using video occasionally, but using it introduces a whole host of time consuming activities that are more related to technology than journalism.

    I have seen video activities get bogged down in a multitude of ways that left little time for what the project was originally intended to teach.

    Comment by Anonymous — August 5, 2013 @ 2:25 pm

  5. As if other projects don’t get bogged down! One of the benefits of tech bogs is that it is usually a kid who will help another kid to find the wharf. One of the most telling experiences I had – in more than 40 years of teaching both college and high school, was an observation by a student who, after working a peer through Google Groups and Google Docs, exclaimed that she “Never knew I really know something until after I’ve helped somebody else make it work.”

    That’s a lot better than filling in a multiple choice test.

    Comment by Joe Beckmann — August 5, 2013 @ 3:45 pm

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