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
I've often heard the argument that "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 the "Great Wall of China," if this student doesn'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.
This doesn't mean that we forgo teaching skills altogether 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 We Asking the Right Questions?
There is a time and place for informational reading passages, but keep in mind, this alone does not make up a high-quality social studies education. More importantly, make sure to ask the right questions.
If for example, a student reads a passage about the Great Wall of China, and they are asked to find the main idea of the text or summarize the passage, this assesses a student's reading skills. Instead, we should be asking critical thinking questions, like "How did this reading passage challenge or support your prior understanding of the Great Wall of China?" Or "What emotions or feelings did this stir up within you?" You might also read a passage and ask the student to identify biases or determine if the passage is a reliable source. Let's make sure we are taking time to ask our students historical thinking questions, and not solely relying on teaching reading skills.
The Makeup of a High-Quality Social Studies Education
If you are in a school that is focused on blending social studies into the reading block, it is important to recognize that this alone does not make up a high-quality social studies education. And more importantly, this becomes an issue of student equity.
A high-quality social studies education includes engaging activities that incorporate critical thinking skills. It includes lessons that pique student curiosity and encourage students to take interest in new things. It means analyzing primary and secondary sources. And it incorporates time for students to lead their own learning. It's pretty difficult to do those things and cover the state social studies standards when social studies is part of the reading block.
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. Show your principal the conclusions and evidence from this study. If they are on the fence, ask them what evidence will it take to change their mind? Because the evidence is clear that reading improvement is made when time is allotted for social studies education.
Looking for additional resources and ideas? Check out these blog posts with helpful tips.