Using Artifacts as a Springboard to Literacy

Ronald Vaughan Morris

Social studies presents people, places, and events in ways that are often abstract, remote, and complex. However, there are instructional techniques that can bring social studies to young learners in ways that are concrete and relevant, and that can also enhance literacy learning. One of these techniques, the use of artifacts, can serve as a fascinating entry into the human experience. Regardless of whether the artifacts reflect popular culture or social history, they can illustrate the stories of individuals and groups and can be a vehicle to stimulate children's interest in social studies and related literature.1 This article describes three kinds of artifact kits--the Archeology Dig kit, Grandmother's Trunk, and the Cultural Mystery kit--that teachers can assemble for use in their classrooms and which provide links to multiple literacy events.

Archeology Dig Kit

An Archeology Dig is an exercise in theory building in which children use their experiences with artifacts as the basis for reading and writing about social studies. As students examine the artifacts within the kit, they can hypothesize about the life-styles those artifacts reflect. As students uncover more artifacts, they may reject or modify their initial hypotheses, a cycle of theory building that repeats throughout the lessons.

Kit Construction

Teachers might select a topic such as Colonial America. Then, by scanning books on interior design, historical architecture, and colonial houses, the first consideration is to locate a floor plan for a suitable colonial house. The floor plan will serve as the framework for the archeology dig. Teachers will also want to locate a picture of the exterior of the house, and then place copies of the plan and the illustration in the kit. To guard against wear and tear, the floor plan and exterior illustration should be laminated and mounted on poster board.

Teachers might gather or purchase inexpensive colonial artifacts from one or more of the reproduction companies listed in the appendix. Sample artifacts appropriate for this kit could include: a nail, one or more glass bottles, assorted pottery, a piece of iron hardware from furniture, a roof slate, brick chips, lead pencils, assorted buttons and coins, rifle balls, or clay marbles.

One advantage of obtaining artifacts from a reproduction company is that they usually come with information describing the object's original use, which should also be included in the kit. Teachers may need to use encyclopedias or social history books to create the documentation for artifacts acquired by other means.

Teachers might want to begin working with an Archeology Dig kit by introducing students to archeological methods. Students will need to learn to locate the site in time and place by analyzing surface clues that could include pieces of broken glass; bits of brick, mortar, and stones; and remnants of plants or vegetation--all of which betray former habitation. Thereafter, the students might use the floor plan to attempt to locate features such as doors, windows, stairs, and fireplaces. Students can then open packets containing two to three artifacts from the house and talk with a partner about the people who lived there. Each artifact, in turn, can fuel the speculative/hypothesizing process. After the students summarize what they have learned about the house and its residents, they can open the illustration of the home's exterior.

Links to Literacy

Students can conclude their artifact kit experience by writing an archeologist's final report that describes their findings and conjectures about the site. The writing activity provides opportunities for students to demonstrate their understanding of the artifacts and to practice thinking like an archaeologist.

Primary students can retell the process of how they examined the artifacts in the Archeology Dig kit. To provide additional information, the teacher may read aloud a book telling about the process of archeology. Then, in a shared writing experience, the teacher (acting as scribe) can record the students' remembrances of the kit and information they gained from the read-alouds. The results of the shared writing activity can be transformed by making a big book in which the children illustrate each page. They can also take turns in shared reading of their book.

Intermediate students can extend their Archeology Dig experience by finding out more about individuals who lived in colonial times. For example, students might read biographies about individuals from the colonial period, such as Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock, Maria Mitchell, Paul Revere, and Phyllis Wheatley. When students have finished reading, they could combine their book notes and--informed by their analysis of the artifact clues--write a story about a day in the life of their character.

Grandmother's Trunk

Grandmother's Trunk reflects another type of artifact kit that teachers can create to introduce students to the sequence of events in history. It is illustrative of forgotten voices, personalization of history in narrative form, and the placement of a life in the context of historical events. It can also show how change occurs around the experiences of one person, and how information in a family is passed down from one generation to another.

To create a Grandmother's Trunk, the teacher will need to collect artifacts reflecting a 90- to 100-year history of events in their local town and area. The artifacts should represent events in a family's life, thus enabling the kit to tie together the related events of the individual, family, community, city, state, nation, and world. By focusing on the life of a grandmother (or in some instances a great-grandmother), this learning experience can also serve as a way to convey the often forgotten area of women's history.

Kit Construction

To develop a Grandmother's Trunk kit, a teacher can seek artifacts from the last 90 or 100 years at flea markets or antique shops. These materials could include a 48-star flag, a picture (recently produced or old) of Grandmother's brother in his World War I uniform, Grandmother's corn husk doll, her bifocals and reading glasses, a bottle of patent medicine, a charcoal picture of her parents, and a program for a political rally in the community supporting women's right to vote. The teacher also needs to write a "Grandmother's letter," using a vintage fountain pen and stationery. The letter should include mention of each artifact in the trunk and its significance to Grandmother's life. The trunk itself might be an old ammunition case that has been surplused (available from an army surplus store). With a few coats of shellac and some sanding, it can become a keepsake chest to hold Grandmother's artifacts and her letter.

Links to Literacy

When students open the trunk, they should read the letter, and then remove the artifacts one by one. Their purpose is to determine as best they can what Grandmother's life was like, and to speculate about her world.2 Primary students can find out more about Grandmother's life by hearing books such as Dinner at Aunt Connie's House, Arctic Hunter, or Chi-Hoon: A Korean Girl read to them. Although the cultures are different, each of these stories describes how family members share histories, and how time and events cause changes during the span of a person's life.

During interactive or shared writing, students can compose a letter to Grandmother questioning her about the events in her life. Students may then use these questions to interview Grandmother, played by the teacher (or, if the teacher is a man, by another adult) in a first person, historical narrative portrayal. In this type of presentation, the person uses the pronoun "I" to tell Grandmother's story as if it were her own. The person may also use props to establish Grandmother's character, and may even dress as Grandmother. Students' questions written on a chart and read orally by the class can provide additional structure for the interview and another literacy opportunity for the children.

Intermediate students may read books that tell how people pass their history on to others through heirlooms, or may write independently about how the artifacts are connected to national, community, or family events. Writing prompts that encourage students to relate the artifacts from other eras to the events of current times can promote reading, writing, and thinking. For example: How does Grandmother's daily life and schooling as a young girl compare with the life and schooling of girls today?

Cultural Mystery Kits

Cultural Mystery kits illustrate a culture distinctive to the region and therefore reasonably familiar to students. If the students live in Indiana or parts of Ohio or Pennsylvania, for example, their teachers might want to create a kit with artifacts that reflect the Amish culture. Many students in Indiana may already be knowledgeable about this particular culture because its members are part of the students' community. However, students are not told that the kit reflects Amish life. Instead, they must examine and evaluate the artifacts to determine the culture being represented.

Kit Creation

One teacher purchased all of the artifacts necessary for an Amish Cultural Mystery kit while shopping in a hardware store in a rural community in Indiana. These materials included assorted crockery, a bridle, a stove damper, button suspenders, a tin pitcher, and a hat cleaner. Another artifact, a hurricane lamp wrapped in old sewing patterns, was also placed in the kit to show Amish rejection of the disposable society. Students can make inferences and draw conclusions based on their experiences in the community and the cultural clues in the kit. Students will likely infer that, even in their selection of packing paper, the Amish waste nothing.

Palinscar and Brown delineated ways that teachers can enhance the metacognition skills of their students.3 Students use questioning strategies to solve problems and build, in this case, an awareness of the facets of Amish life. For example, students might ask one another: Who would have horses? Who would use a hat brush? Who would use a hurricane lamp? Who would need button suspenders? Although sometimes puzzled by individual clues, by the end of the activity Indiana students usually surmised that the artifacts represent the Amish community.

Links to Literacy

As students examine each artifact, they can record their hypotheses in their notebooks.4 To share and interpret their ideas about the target culture, students write their hypotheses on note cards and display them with clothes pins on a clothes line in the classroom. As a large group, the students collectively examine the individual hypotheses and try to group ideas that have significant elements in common. They also look for discrepant hypotheses. Students should record in their notebooks their thinking associated with the collective process of grouping ideas.

Primary students may find out more about Amish life by having stories read aloud to them. They might also create charts which show jobs that the Amish do in one column and the tools they use in a second column. In a third column, students might list the tools others use to do the same jobs. Intermediate students could also read books such as Amish Home to gain more in-depth understanding about how an Amish community supports its members and maintains strong ties to tradition.

Artifact Resources

Materials for artifact kits can be obtained from a variety of sources. For example, suttler companies are vendors who create reproductions of tools, clothes, and accoutrements from various historical periods. While suttler companies are primarily providers of materials for historical reenactments, they also have supplies of artifacts suitable for teachers to purchase. Museum shops often sell reproductions of artifacts, while flea markets can be an inexpensive source of authentic artifacts.

The materials for artifact kits need not be expensive. Grandparents and parents, as well as craft and hobby lovers, all have potential contributions for a kit maker. Once the word gets out that students are using artifacts at school, an amazing amount of materials will emerge from attics and become available as either loans or gifts. In some instances, teachers can make, or have made, simple reproductions of loaned items to add to their artifact collection.


By using artifact kits, teachers can improve the teaching of social studies and simultaneously enhance children's literacy skills. The attention that children give to three dimensional objects is evidence that they come to school with an innate interest in and genuine excitement about artifacts. By capitalizing on the interests of students and combining these with artifact kits, teachers can help students see their place in history--now, then, and into the future.


1. See, for example, Sherry L. Field, Linda D. Labbo, Ron W. Wilhelm, and Alan Garrett, "To Touch, to Feel, to See: Artifact Inquiry in the Social Studies Classroom," Social Education 60, No. 3 (1996): 141-143; and Kathryn Button and David Welton, "Integrating Literacy Activities and Social Studies at the Primary Level," Social Studies & the Young Learner 9 (1997): 15-18.

2. Linda L. Thistlewaite, "Critical Reading for At-Risk Students," Journal of Reading (May 1990): 586-593.

3. Annemarie S. Palinscar and Ann L. Brown, Reciprocal Teaching of Comprehension Monitoring Activities, Technical Report No. 269 (Champaign, IL)

4. Lucy Calkins, The Art of Teaching Writing (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1994).

Children's Books

Bial, Baymond. Amish Home. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993.

Hoyt-Goldsmith, Diane. Arctic Hunter. New York: Holiday House, 1992.

McMahon, Patricia. Chi-Hoon: A Korean Girl. Honesdale, PA: Caroline House, 1993.

Ringgold, Faith. Dinner at Aunt Connie's House. New York: Hyperion Books for Children, 1993.

About the Author

Ronald Vaughan Morris is an assistant professor of curriculum and instruction at Texas Tech University, where he teaches undergraduate and graduate social tudies courses.

Selected Sources for Artifacts

Ethnic Arts and Facts

Susan Drexler

P.O. Box 20550

Oakland, CA 94620


Fax 510-465-7488

Commercial collections of artifacts representing many world cultures.

James Townsend and Son

PO Box 415

Perceton, Indiana 46562


A comprehensive collection of reproductions, hardware, and historic clothing for the period from 1750 - 1830.

Cuyahoga Valley Trading Company

2802 Center Drive

Parma, Ohio 44134


Good prices for early pioneer period clothing and accessories.

Buffalo Enterprises

308 West King Street

Box 183

East Berlin, PA 17316


A wide variety of items for the period from the French and Indian War to the Civil War.

Lithic Casting Lab

577 Troy Oallon Road

Troy, IL 62294

An excellent collection of museum-quality reproductions of Native American stone artifacts that are especially good for prehistoric archeology.