How to Make Significant Reading Gains in Elementary

This might sound counterintuitive, but if we want to see real reading improvement, then we need to cut back on ELA and make more room for direct social studies instructional time. A new long-range study from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute found that social studies--not ELA is "the only subject with a clear, positive, and statistically significant effect on reading improvement."

Study Finds We Need to Cut Back ELA and Spend More Time Teaching Social Studies to See Reading Improvement

In elementary, schools are spending on average 120 minutes on reading each day and 82 minutes on math. Social studies receives the least amount of instructional time, with only about 28 minutes allocated to this subject. The findings from this new study are incredibly significant because this long-range study followed 18,000 students from kindergarten through their 5th grade year.

The study found that when students had an additional 30 minutes of direct social studies instructional time each day, significant reading gains were made. In fact, on average, students in grades 1–5 outperformed students with less social studies time by 15 percent of a standard deviation on the fifth-grade reading assessment. The students that benefited the most from more social studies instruction were girls, those from lower-income, and non-English speaking homes. No other subject--not even ELA had a significant effect on reading improvement.

Background Knowledge is the Key to Reading Comprehension

You might be thinking but, "students need to learn to read, and then they can read to learn." This is a false assumption. Yes, we need to teach decoding skills, but our young students can still learn so much about the world through social studies instruction. We tend to look at reading as a "skill" and think of social studies as a domain that is learned later in school, this is incorrect thinking. "It is background knowledge that enables fluent reading comprehension."

As elementary teachers, we have a huge responsibility in laying the foundation for student proficiency in social studies. We have put so much emphasis on reading skills and strategies that only 23% of American 8th graders are proficient in civics, for example. The problem is that while a student may be able to sound out or read the words "Great Wall of China," if our students don't have any background knowledge about the history, geography, or significance of this term, then their reading comprehension is significantly lower than those who read the passage and immediately understand the context or what the author is implying.

I get that as teachers, we need to teach reading skills because we don't know what kind of reading passage our students will encounter when they take a reading assessment. However, this study found that more time in social studies is actually the answer to literacy improvement.

Are You Asking the Right Questions?

Instead of teaching reading skills, cut back your ELA block by 30 minutes to make room for a high-quality social studies education that builds student knowledge of the world. I often hear teachers tell me that they use informational reading passages all the time, but keep in mind, this alone does not make up a high-quality social studies education.

As well, we need to make sure that we aren't having our students read a passage on the Great Wall of China, for example, and then answers questions about the "main idea" of the passage or have students "summarize the text." These are not historical thinking questions--these are questions that assess reading skills. We need to move away from this. Instead, we should be asking our students critical thinking questions, like "how did this challenge your prior understanding of the topic?" Or "what emotions or feelings did this trigger within you?" "What biases do you see in this passage?"

The Makeup of a High-Quality Social Studies Education

A high-quality social studies education includes engaging activities that incorporate critical thinking skills. It means lessons that pique student curiosity and encourage students to take interest in new things. It means time for student ownership of learning and time for exploration. It means analyzing primary and secondary sources. And ultimately, it means building background knowledge.

But What about Mandates?

The findings from this long-range study are clear: if we want to see reading improvement we need to rethink how we spend our instructional time and we need more time for social studies. Cut back ELA and make room for social studies and if your principal questions your decision, show your principal the conclusions and evidence from this study. This is what will make a real and statistically significant impact on reading.

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