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How to Make Significant Reading Gains with Social Studies Instruction

You have likely seen the recent headlines about pandemic learning loss, and the impacts of remote learning. The data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which is overseen by the U.S. Department of Education, is clear that declines in reading and math occurred across grade levels.

What immediately stands out to me is that the data is nuanced. Socioeconomic status plays a significant role in academics, especially during remote learning. For example, in California’s Silicon Valley, where only 6% of students qualify for free or reduced lunch, students actually gained ground in some academic areas during remote learning. However, in the Central Valley city of Merced, California, where 80% of students qualify for free or reduced lunch, students spent the same amount of time learning remotely, yet learning loss was significant.

The pandemic has highlighted the inequalities in our education system, and now the gap has widened between the schools where students come from more affluent homes to those of lower-socioeconomic status.

In terms of reading scores, the data shows that reading skills tend to be influenced by parents and what happens at home. We know that students who come from more affluent homes are more likely to be taken to events and partake in cultural experiences. They are more likely to travel and take trips outside of their community. All of these things build background knowledge, which is essential to reading comprehension.

Research from a long-range study conducted by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute found that the only subject to provide clear, measurable, and significant reading gains, is social studies instruction. More time teaching reading and ELA skills do not lead to reading gains. Unfortunately, social studies has taken the back burner, and even more so during the pandemic.

The findings show that when students are exposed to the world around them, make connections, and gain background knowledge, they perform better on reading assessments because they have context. If they are given a reading passage about the Taj Mahal, but have never heard of this Wonder of the World, their reading comprehension is significantly lower than a student who already has background knowledge about the Taj Mahal and reads the same passage for the first time.

Building background knowledge does not have to only come in the form of integrating more informational reading passages. Instead, creating more hands-on learning experiences where the world comes to life can be a great way to build background knowledge.

While field trips are some of my personal most memorable learning experiences as a child, coordinating and funding a field trip as a teacher can be challenging. With the help of today’s amazing technology, virtual field trips can be a more feasible option.

Virtual field trips are an interactive learning activity where students can experience the world up-close and personal through technology, such as Google Earth where students can “walk” along the Great Wall of China, or experience the Taj Mahal and the surrounding grounds up close with panoramic views.

During the pandemic, I started creating a line of virtual field trips that align with the social studies standards so that educators can still take their students on a travel experience from home or the classroom. The feedback from teachers has been clear, that these interactive experiences, take something often thought of as “boring” to “engaging” and “exciting.” Sparking curiosity and enthusiasm for learning through virtual travel has been a game-changer for teachers.

I've created virtual field trips for World History & Geography, and U.S. History. For students who may never experience a Washington D.C. trip, virtual field trips can provide a more equitable learning experience. I’ve created a virtual field trip bundle that includes a trip to the U.S. Capitol and the White House. This bundle provides a sense of wonder and excitement (just less expensive than a flight and expenses!). Students can lead their own learning with Google Earth exploration that brings these sites up close and personal.

I’m sure you’re hearing that more time needs to be spent on reading to make up for learning loss. If you are tempted to spend more time teaching reading skills, I encourage you to focus on social studies instead. While it seems counterintuitive to spend less time teaching reading, if we want to follow “best practices,” the research is clear that more social studies instruction is the solution to making significant reading gains. If your principal questions your decision to cut back on ELA, show them the findings from the long-range study here.

As well, when social studies is marginalized, it becomes an issue of student equity. Our students should not be denied a high-quality social studies education simply because reading and math have taken a higher priority due to test scores.

If you would like to read more on this study you can see additional findings here.


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