Review by Stacy Zeiger, Common Sense Education | Updated November 2013
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National Archives DocsTeach

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Historical texts, interactive activities can promote critical thinking

Subjects & skills
  • Critical Thinking

  • Social Studies
Grades This grade range is a recommendation by Common Sense Education and not the developer/publisher.
Common Sense says (See details)
Teachers say (4 Reviews)

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Pros: By viewing primary source documents, students learn about history firsthand, rather than through the lens of a textbook author.

Cons: Hard-to-read texts make completing many activities difficult.

Bottom Line: This text-rich app encourages students to conduct their own analysis of history, but the formats and graphics may prevent them from making a thorough analysis.

You may use National Archives DocsTeach to supplement the textbook with primary source documents. While the app itself features multiple pre-created activities, the real value lies in the ability to create custom activities for your students. After creating an account at, you have the opportunity to select texts to apply to one of the interactive graphic organizers. When you create your own activities, you can also add additional details for students, making it easier for them to understand how to complete the activity, letting them know which details to pay attention to, and providing them with a final analysis of, or takeaway from, the activity. Students then receive a code to allow them to complete the activity using the app.

The option to add discussion questions or short writing prompts to the end of the app allows you to further bring home the meaning of the texts. It also works as a way to quickly monitor student understanding.

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National Archives DocsTeach brings the online archives and activities to the iPad. Students and teachers can search activities by time period and movement or enter a classroom code to access materials and activities chosen by the teacher. Review of the historical documents is tied to a collection of interactive graphic organizers designed to give students a purpose as they read through the texts. After reading or skimming the texts, students drag and drop text icons into boxes on the interactive graphic organizers. The app uses accurate digital images of historical texts, so many of the texts appear on yellowed paper and feature the original handwriting and formatting. Students have the option to zoom in and out of a text, but texts that are already difficult to read may not be improved by making the images smaller or larger.

After completing a graphic organizer, many activities provide students with a few discussion questions or a short writing prompt. Students are encouraged to respond to the questions and email them to the teacher.

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Instead of relying on highly engaging, interactive graphics and sound effects, National Archives DocsTeach takes a simpler approach. Students access history in its original form, through primary source documents, and analyze that history using a series of drag-and-drop graphic organizers. These organizers are focused on the critical-thinking skills that most standards, including the Common Core, require: making connections, evaluating evidence and drawing conclusions, understanding cause and effect, and sequencing events. Unfortunately, many of the activities do not leave room for students to form and defend their own analysis of the materials. Instead, they must come up with the "correct" analysis. With many of the activities, it is also not immediately clear what students are supposed to do with the texts they are given, leaving them to drag and drop the text icons until the app determines they've gotten all the answers correct.

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Overall Rating

Engagement Is the product stimulating, entertaining, and engrossing? Will kids want to return?

While the activities help students interact with the text, they must read or skim a large volume of texts. Some may quickly become uninterested or even frustrated.

Pedagogy Is learning content seamlessly baked-in, and do kids build conceptual understanding? Is the product adaptable and empowering? Will skills transfer?

Students take primary source documents and use them to complete activities to help them develop a better understanding of a particular period of history or historical movement.

Support Does the product take into account learners of varying abilities, skill levels, and learning styles? Does it address both struggling and advanced students?

Although unclear instructions and hard-to-read texts can frustrate students, teachers can offer support in the form of instructions and custom activities.

Common Sense Reviewer
Stacy Zeiger Homeschooling parent

Teacher Reviews

(See all 4 reviews) (4 reviews) Write a review
Featured review by
Andrea M. , Other
Mercer Middle School
Aldie, VA
Useful tool for teacher and students to study primary sources. (website and app)

Student engagement with primary sources is important for providing context and for learning how to analyze and evaluate historical events. The website is useful for student and teacher research, but the mobile app has no research feature. Students can complete activities using the website or the mobile app, though students with certain special needs may need to use the website because the app has no built in assistive technology support such as read aloud. Creating activities for different reading levels requires duplication of effort, which is not ideal for teacher planning and preparation. With access to thousands of primary sources through the National Archives, DocsTeach can be a powerful tool for teachers and students to use as a research and document curation tool. Teachers who want to create activities will need to plan for a learning curve and set aside the time to learn the tools.

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