Literacy in the social studies classroom

Patrick Sprinkle

The adoption of the Common Core Learning Standards provides social studies teachers with an opportunity to rethink day-to-day practices that have the potential to dramatically transform how students read, write and think about the subject.

By placing an emphasis on what students produce and the thinking that goes on while they are reading, writing or talking and not the amount of content covered, teachers can help students prepare for the rigors of college and the workplace.

Most educators recognize the significance of literacy and the need to assign research papers and projects that require critical thinking and collaboration. They also want to help students develop the tools needed to be critical consumers of media.

However, many teachers lack the appropriate toolbox to infuse daily literacy into their classrooms. Here are some tips to help you encourage more reading, writing and critical thinking in your classroom.

Why literacy?

Think about your first college-level class. What differentiated those who were able to succeed that first semester from those who struggled to pass? The ability to identify the key information in the textbook and apply the new information to different settings is what separates successful college students from those who struggle. Social studies classes in high school should spend at least 10–15 minutes each day reading from primary sources, secondary text and other forms of text and spend an additional 10 minutes writing. A return to the fundamental building blocks of reading and writing is what will produce college- and career-ready students.

The following techniques outline a few ways that teachers can implement this in their daily instruction.

Annotation and modeling — Reading and annotating the first few paragraphs of a written text with students will help them learn how they should think as they read. Reading is not a passive exercise, and students must be taught that annotation is like having your own conversation with a text. In addition, this is a great way for students to learn concepts such as how to identify main ideas and supporting details.

Double-entry journal — This technique starts with a question. For example, a guiding question for reading might be: “Did the Constitution protect the rights of all people?” The goal is to provide students with a purpose for reading. This question should be made explicit to students prior to reading as you model how to annotate.

As students read, they should be expected to pull out information that answers this question. On the left side of the double-entry journal, they will write their “evidence” and on the right side they will make a connection to something else they read or explain how this evidence is relevant. This technique is one way to ensure that students are thinking as they read and can make historical connections that help content resonate.

Multiple writing prompts — It is important for students to write every day in your class. Students should have multiple questions from which to choose, allowing for greater flexibility in their responses. For example, students can be asked a higher-order question that requires them to produce evidence from the reading, asked to make a prediction or simply asked to state what they learned that day. While some may rightfully be cautious about the last prompt, experience shows that students will respond to the prompt that matches their skill level. If I have too many students responding to the lower level questions, I know this is a topic I should try to teach in a different manner.

Think, pair, share — Social studies teachers like to develop democratic communities. One way to get everyone involved is through a think, pair, share — i.e., posing a question to the entire class and asking students to briefly write down their responses and share them with a neighbor. This approach creates a more collaborative classroom, allows more voices to be heard and exposes students to different perspectives while also encouraging a more student-centered classroom.

One-sentence interviews — This technique can get students to verbalize their beliefs after reading a text. For example, after a reading about the abolitionist John Brown, one potential question for a one-sentence interview is “Was John Brown right to use extreme measures to fight slavery?” Students would take seven to eight minutes asking each other this question and writing down their responses. Again, this technique creates a more collaborative and democratic classroom and recognizes the inherent diversity within social studies. It also acknowledges that history is not handed down from on high but is subject to multiple and competing interpretations.

Patrick Sprinkle is a social studies teacher at Bronx Collegiate Academy.

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