Boosting Reading Skills through Social Studies at the Elementary Level
Want to improve students’ reading scores? Incorporate more social studies into their instruction.
“The Early Childhood Longitudinal Study shows that social studies is the only subject with a clear, positive, and statistically significant effect on reading improvement. In contrast, extra time spent on English Language Arts (ELA) instruction has no significant relationship with reading improvement,” Adam Tyner and Sarah Kabourek explain in their 2021 Social Education journal article, “How Social Studies Improves Elementary Literacy.”
According to the study, social studies has the power to boost literacy and student language acquisition. Because of its focus on people and the world around us, social studies gives students context for their ELA learning. As students use background knowledge to decipher informational text, they build real-world vocabulary and gain stronger reading comprehension skills.
In many elementary schools, where teachers have very limited social studies instruction time, they can use informational text from social studies during their language arts block.
“Integration of ELA strategies into social studies gives students an opportunity to use and refine ELA skills while using relevant content,” says Kelly Jeffery, ELA curriculum director at Studies Weekly.
Beyond reading, social studies instruction can also be more deeply blended with ELA, and support reading, writing, listening and speaking skills. Here are four tips for further integrating social studies and ELA:
1. Use Interactive Notebooks
“[I]nteractive notebooks are simple spiral-bound notebooks into which students glue or tape my handouts,” says Christina Gil in a 2016 article for Edutopia. “It’s just a simple, functional way for students to create, write, and explore ideas all in the same place.”
Jeffery adds that interactive notebooks are a way for both the teacher to see what students are learning and thinking. Students use them to take notes, explore ideas, ask questions, reflect and respond. They then become a sourcebook for students as they review for assessments.
“They pair very well with Studies Weekly because it is a perfect way to consume our publications,” Jeffery explains.
2. Create a Presentation
Students need different types of opportunities to share their understanding and presentations are perfect for this.
Brochures, posters, Google Slides, Nearpods, etc. are all interactive avenues for students to work individually or collaborate together to demonstrate knowledge. Similarly, students can create video journals to storyboard events and their responses. The goal is not a perfect analysis of the event or the historical figure they are studying, but a reflection on it.
Additionally, students can create readers’ theaters or short plays based on historic events, and perform them for the class. Others might opt to write a poem about a historic figure or create a children’s book explaining about an even
Three examples of easy ways students can show learning (from top left): file folders used to summarize information, popsicle puppets to share information from a historical figure’s point of view, and trioramas used for summarizing, fact/opinion, analyzing a primary source, or as a mini-report.
3. Create a Supported Response
Using informational texts, students can create a reasoned persuasive argument sharing their opinion on an event or person.
One form of supported response is a small paragraph following the TEES Template as explained by Jeannette Balantic and Erica Fregosi in their 2012 article, “Strengthening Student Thinking and Writing about World History,” for Social Studies and the Young Learner.
The TEES Template helps students strengthen their thinking, reasoning, and responses to open-ended assessments. With this exercise students go beyond learning historical facts — instead they use these facts to form arguments and support.
4. Hold Collaborative Groups
After reading an article, students may analyze the information and reflect on it within their interactive notebook.
With their notebooks and/or articles in front of them, teachers can guide students in opening up a dialogue about what they read with a small group or the entire class. Students should consider all voices and sides to an issue or event, and use additional sources, if needed, to deepen their understanding.
As they share their opinions and factual evidence, students should also be instructed to actively listen to the other side. The goal of this exercise is not to win but to try to find a compromise between both positions.
These four tips are only just few options to help teachers blend social studies and ELA in the elementary classroom. Even more, in addition to integrating with ELA, social studies is also the gateway to deeper learning in all subjects. For example, as students learn geography, they learn spatial math concepts. Or as they learn about historical developments in technology, they develop background knowledge for science. Even within the study of social studies, students learn how to make connections between a specific topic and its effect on people, events, and society. They begin to understand how geography affects a region’s economics, history affects governments, and governments affect society.
Teaching social studies with an integrated learning approach strengthens students’ ability to reason and think critically, gain a deeper understanding of the content, and transfer information to solve new problems. This knowledge can prepare them for the future as they become the world’s government, business, and family leaders.
Balantic, J., & Fregosi, E. (2012, November). Strengthening student thinking and writing about world history. Social Studies and the Young Learner, National Council for the Social Studies. Retrieved May 27, 2022, from https://www.socialstudies.org/social-studies-and-young-learner/25/2/strengthening-student-thinking-and-writing-about-world
Gil, C. (2016, August 30). Interactive notebooks: No special hardware required. Edutopia. Retrieved May 27, 2022, from https://www.edutopia.org/blog/interactive-notebooks-no-special-hardware-christina-lovdal-gil
Tyner, A., & Kabourek, S. (2021, January). How social studies improves elementary literacy. Social Education, National Council for the Social Studies. Retrieved May 27, 2022, from https://www.socialstudies.org/social-education/85/1/how-social-studies-improves-elementary-literacy