With Reason and Rhetoric Building the Case for the Literature-Social Studies Connection

Thomas M. McGowan, Lynnette Erickson, and Judith A. Neufeld

Literature and social studies teaching have demonstrated a persistent, attractive connection. Educators have long argued that many features of trade books, particularly their detailed descriptions, complex characters, and melodic passages, allow young readers to construct understandings in powerful ways. The potential that these books hold for promoting citizenship learning has made literature-based instruction an appealing option for many social educators.
Advocates past and present have championed trade books as a resource for social studies instruction. More than 150 years ago, Johann Friedrich Herbart proposed conducting the study of history with literary sources to instill desirable social attitudes in children (see Rippa 1988). For the past forty years, educators have repeatedly proclaimed literature's instructional benefits. Proponents have argued, for example, that fiction brings historical figures alive for children (Dahmus 1956; Dawson 1965; Huus 1961). They have proposed that literary works contain the threads that can bind seemingly disparate content areas into an integrated curriculum (Norton 1988). Currently, literature-based teaching attracts interest from many social educators. The NCSS Annual Conference program of 1995 featured roughly fifty sessions advancing the instructional possibilities of trade books (NCSS 1995).

Adherents of the literature-social studies connection often cite the perceived shortcomings of traditional textbooks to justify their advocacy. For example, some proponents have insisted that trade books provide more current information in a more engaging manner (Holmes and Ammon 1985) and nurture children's imaginations more readily (McClure and Zitlow 1991) than do textbooks. Others characterize textbooks as limited in scope, sacrificing deep analysis for extensive coverage and contributing to students' inability to transcend factual recall for reflective thinking (Brophy, McMahon, and Prawat 1991; Brozo and Tomlinson 1986; Guzzetti, Kowalinski, and McGowan 1992; Sewall 1988; Tyson and Woodward 1989). Still others have urged teachers to rely almost exclusively on trade books as resources for social studies lessons, relegating the textbook to a supplementary role (Ceprano and English 1990; Graves 1989; Johnson 1989; Zack 1991).

Although the literature-social studies connection has attracted many vocal patrons, some educators have questioned whether it constitutes a miracle cure for the much-publicized ills that beset social studies teaching and learning. A number of educators have cautioned that literature-based teaching seems vague and ill-defined, raising doubts about the precision and effectiveness of this instructional approach. They have noted that advocates use the terms literature, trade book, story, story book, and children's literature synonymously to identify any written account that is not a text book, whether the work is poetry, fiction, biography, or nonfiction (McGowan and Sutton 1988). Taking a different critical perspective, Hellenbrand (1988) expressed strong reservations about recommendations that teachers use trade books to liven and integrate social studies courses. His opposition stemmed from a concern that literature cannot be "used" without demeaning or trivializing an artistic work. Conversely, Alleman and Brophy (1994) have raised the issue that literature-based teaching demeans and trivializes the purposes and content of social studies. Their case studies of elementary classrooms revealed that teachers rarely make literature selections with social studies goals and concepts in mind. They choose books for their literary quality and appeal. Consequently, literature-based teaching too often misses significant aspects of a topic that are essential for promoting civic competence.

In view of its widespread advocacy, these concerns about the literature-social studies connection seem to merit further investigation. Yet these concerns remain the exception, beyond an educational mainstream that increasingly calls for social studies teaching based on literary sources. Many state guidelines for social studies curriculum, in fact, have mandated the adoption of literature-based teaching to integrate the content areas and promote citizenship learning (Arizona State Board of Education 1988; Crabtree and Ravitch 1988; New York 1982; Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction 1983).

The Case Examined
Proponents of the literature-social studies connection make their case reasonably, persuasively, and often emotionally. They offer powerful and compelling arguments for using trade books to promote civic competence. Curiously, most advocates do not support their claims for the effectiveness of literature-based social studies teaching with research findings. From 1929-1988, various educational journals included 164 articles exploring the association between trade books and social studies teaching (McGowan and Sutton 1988). Yet only 4 percent of these citations were data-based examinations of the nature and/or effectiveness of literature-based teaching. The remainder consisted of bibliographic essays, rationales for literature-based teaching, and strategies for implementing this instructional approach. Although research studies have appeared more frequently in recent years, reading theorists and constructivist psychologists, not social educators, conducted most of these investigations; they typically examined the effects of literature-based teaching on students' literacy rather than their civic competence (Fielding, Wilson, and Anderson 1984; Smith 1993).
At this point, we might ask why the trade book-social studies connection has attracted such a vocal following. Literature-based teaching must exert a persuasive power indeed for so many social educators to endorse it so enthusiastically, without much proof of its effectiveness. What forces generate this appeal? Although this question seems intriguing, we pursue a line of inquiry that seems more productive and practical. Can literature-based instruction contribute to the teaching and learning of social studies content? In what ways? To what extent? Stated more directly, is the case for the trade book-social studies connection built with reason or rhetoric?

Defining Our Terms. Before addressing these questions, we need to define how we view the key elements of literature-based social studies teaching. By literature based, we mean instruction using trade books rather than basal textbooks as the major information source for social studies lessons. Although unpublished materials such as diaries, letters, and documents may promote student learning, we do not include these sources in our conception of literature.

By social studies, we mean "the integrated study of the social sciences and humanities to promote civic competence" (NCSS 1994, 3). We adopt this definition for purposes of clarity. Educators have engaged in a seemingly endless effort to conceptualize the social studies, debating numerous interpretations of the field. Although these definitions vary widely in their specifics, they have agreed on a central mission for social studies-promoting civic competence (Brophy 1990). Our adopted definition not only emphasizes this common purpose, it carries the endorsement of the field's principal professional organization, National Council for the Social Studies.

The Essentials of Civic Competence. Because we live in a world characterized by diversity and change, civic competence may seem an elusive and complex notion, more an ideal construct than a set of real qualities that students might learn to demonstrate. The curriculum standards for social studies, however, clearly mark civic competence as an attainable and necessary purpose for social education, a prerequisite for assuming what Jefferson termed "the office of citizen" (NCSS 1994, 3). The developers of these standards identify three essential elements which constitute civic competence: knowledge about the community, nation, and world; skills of data collection and analysis, decision making, problem solving, and collaboration; and a commitment to the values of our democratic republic.

Logically, these essential elements should guide our line of inquiry about the viability of the trade book-social studies connection. To address our series of questions, we reviewed a cross-section of articles advocating the uses and researching the effects of literature-based social studies teaching. We analyzed the arguments and assessed the evidence regarding how literature-based instruction can contribute to promoting the knowledge, skills, and values that constitute civic competence. Our review allows us to describe the complex, convincing case that advocates have made for the trade book-social studies connection and to determine that it has been built with a mixture of reasonable evidence and persuasive rhetoric.

Acquiring Knowledge for Civic Competence
The social studies curriculum standards strongly assert that young citizens must acquire factual information and construct deeper meanings about the local, state, national, and global communities in which they live (NCSS 1994). Civic competence requires knowledge drawn from various disciplines that transcends any single field. Civic competence demands that students not only know the facts, concepts, and ideas necessary to participate in civic affairs, but that they understand the processes through which they came to know these things and why a citizen should know them. Ultimately, students must demonstrate that they can hold the office of citizen by translating their knowledge into plans for civic action.
The Argument. Advocates of literature-based teaching believe that trade books help young citizens gain a range of understandings that seems both comprehensive and complex. Literary works provide students with a more complete grasp of a wider range of topics than do more traditional sources of social studies information (Brozo and Tomlinson 1986; Davis and Palmer 1992; McClure and Zitlow 1991). Their rich detail "fleshes-out" the skeleton of basic information presented in most text books (Ceprano and English 1990; Larrick 1955; Huus 1961). Trade literature, particularly picture books, offers young readers "vicarious visual images that make the long ago and the far away more concrete" (Harms and Lettow 1993, 364).

According to its advocates, literature-based teaching allows students to link their knowledge of the past to the social issues of the present (Danielson 1989; Fuhler 1991; Norton 1990; Zarrillo 1989) and extend their understanding of the ways in which people and places change over time (Harms and Lettow 1993). Children extend their grasp of the personalities and events that have shaped our world as they read engaging literary accounts presented from multiple perspectives (Garcia, Hadaway, and Beal 1988; Harms and Lettow 1993; Wheeler 1971). Young readers comprehend key geographic concepts (Lorrie 1993). They not only absorb great quantities of detail, they also make meaning in personal and satisfying ways (Wheeler 1971).

The Reasonable Evidence. The element of civic competence most often investigated by researchers is the extent to which students acquire social studies knowledge through literature-based instruction. Although study findings do not substantiate every assertion made by trade book advocates, the research supports these claims to some degree. Levstik (1986, 1989, 1990), for example, confirmed that students, particularly early adolescents, associate with the characters they "meet" in historical literature. Young citizens form the strongest relationships with people facing daunting challenges, such as Helen Keller or a Holocaust survivor. Bonding with story characters often motivates learners to uncover more information about the circumstances surrounding a heroic struggle, positively influencing their historical understanding in the process.

Other researchers have explored how literature "fills in the gaps" left by incomplete textbook explanations of historical events. Beck and McKeown (1991), examining the historical understanding of upper elementary students, found that quality trade books supply sufficient detail for learners to make the causal connections to sequence important ideas. Class activities that draw on richly descriptive trade book passages allow young readers to link the past with the present and to recognize how things change over time.

Similarly, the work of Monson, Howe, and Greenlee (1989) revealed that novels more fully answered young children's questions about how people live in other countries than did textbooks. Smith (1993) compared the conceptual understanding of students exposed only to social studies textbooks with children who read selected works of historical fiction rather than basal readers. Students in the experimental, literature-based classrooms could recall about 60 percent more information than could children in the control classrooms. Morrow, O'Connor, and Smith (1990) concluded that kindergartners exposed to literacy instruction based on trade books could recall more information and show increased understanding of concepts than could young children receiving a more traditional teaching approach. Offering "some empirical support" for literature-based social studies instruction, Guzzetti, Kowalinski, and McGowan (1992, 121) concluded that "students can acquire more concepts and a greater understanding of those concepts through literature ... than through a traditional approach."

Promoting Skills for Civic Competence
The social studies standards document lists skill categories that excellent social studies programs should promote (NCSS 1994). Students must gain the capacity to acquire information and manipulate data; develop and present policies, arguments, and stories; construct new knowledge; and participate in groups. Young citizens should not practice each skill in isolation; they should engage in integrative experiences in which the skills enrich one another.
The Argument. Advocates contend that instruction based on trade books provides opportunities for children to develop a range of skills central to gaining and exercising civic competence. Moreover, the experiential and integrative nature of this approach allows children to combine related skills and apply these competencies to solve "real-world" problems. In particular, proponents argue that involvement with quality trade books can encourage students to think critically and reflectively (Brozo and Tomlinson 1986; Davis and Palmer 1992; Farris and Fuhler 1994; Usery 1966).

As they experience literature-based activities, students integrate information from multiple disciplines to ready themselves for social action (Harms and Lettow 1993). They comprehend material from various genres and can read these sources in a critical way (Wheeler 1971; Zack 1991). Reading and conversing about good literature "can enable a child to think about something important with an adult (and to talk about it or not) in a comfortable atmosphere" (Fassler and Janis 1985, 496).

The Reasonable Evidence. Although advocates argue persuasively that literature-based teaching builds a range of student competencies, the research supporting these claims, when viewed as a body of work, seems relatively "thin" and occasionally contradictory. Beck and McKeown (1991) offered one of the few examples of research examining the impact of this approach on student skills. Investigating student knowledge acquisition, they assumed that students could not think critically about topics they did not comprehend, because they require "sufficient quantity and quality of information to allow critical consideration" (489). The researchers noted that trade books seem to generate sufficient understandings when used productively with young readers. Levstik's naturalistic study (1986), however, revealed that sixth grade students identified so strongly with story characters that critical questioning of their behaviors became problematic.

Ellis (1990) found more positive indicators of student performance in action research examining the uses of literature-based instruction at the secondary level. He formed reading teams so that young people could engage in dialogue about the issues presented in literary sources in a positive and nonthreatening environment. In these settings, students interacted productively and made constructive decisions about what they should learn.

Nurturing Values for Civic Competence
Certain values, such as respect for a person's fundamental rights and basic freedoms, underlie our democratic way of life and ensure our belief in a common good (NCSS 1994). Any systematic program of social studies teaching must develop students' commitment to these ideals. Instruction should include activities that encourage the formation of these values and allow children to weigh their priorities, as well as experiences in which young citizens examine how values are formed and how they influence human behavior.
The Argument. Many advocates insist that teaching with trade books can promote multiple aspects of children's affective growth. Literature-based teaching stimulates children's interests (Fassler and Janis 1985; Huus 1961) and invites children to appreciate and enjoy the learning process (Davis and Palmer 1992). Children experiencing multicultural literature emerge with a heightened social sensitivity to the needs of others and the recognition that people have similarities as well as differences (Norton 1990). Literary encounters help "children ... feel what others feel. This heightens their sensitivity to people and expands their awareness of human options" (Barnes 1991, 18). Young citizens first identify, internalize, and empathize with main characters, then with "real people" as they try to cope with or resolve problems forced on them (Ceprano and English 1990).

Some advocates propose that this approach can shape core values and increase students' commitment to participate in public affairs. By "injecting a study of social ethics" into the reading curriculum, for example, teachers can boost the likelihood that children will practice ethical behaviors such as appreciating the dignity of labor and gaining a "sympathetic attitude toward the joys and cares of others" (Tuttle 1954, 19). Other proponents have added conflict resolution, compassion, humanism, tolerance, and world understanding to this list of ethical behaviors (Fassler and Janis 1985; Gallagher 1988; Sowers 1947).

Moreover, by interacting with trade books, children "can come to sense what it means ... to be kind, honest, or fair. The extensive use of 'real' stories provides an opportunity for integrating values education" (Gibbs and Earley 1994, 11). Because quality literature engages so many personal dimensions simultaneously, children make personal meaning from the complexities, joys, and wonders of the human experience and become motivated to act on their world (Graves 1989). Encounters with literature may cause students and teachers to explore and act on their cultural values and beliefs (Rasinski and Padak 1990).

The Reasonable Evidence. Confirmation that literature-based teaching nurtures values that contribute to civic competence seems lacking. Some research suggests that this approach can influence young citizens' affective growth, but this evidence seems limited and often inferential. Levstik (1990), for example, found that elementary children consider literary texts more authoritative than basal texts. They believe trade book accounts over text book versions, largely because literature makes such an affective impression on them. Guzzetti, Kowalinski, and McGowan (1992) compared the conceptual learning and attitudes toward social studies of two sixth grade classrooms; one experienced literature-based teaching while the other received a traditional, textbook approach. The literature group demonstrated significantly better understanding of key concepts and more positive views of social studies, although the attitudinal changes could not be considered significant.

Benner (1991) investigated how nursing students form appropriate professional values. She concluded that dictating behavioral guidelines or principles has a limited effect. Instead, ethical development must be informed by a community of practitioners who engage in dialogue about stories in which particular characters and situations exemplify moral values. To apply Benner's findings to a secondary school population demands something resembling a "leap of faith." Still, her research suggests that values cannot be shaped by presenting students with static universals, but by illustrating appropriate behavior in stories that expand their ethical views.

The Case Assessed
The number of convincing arguments for social studies instruction based on literary sources far outweighs the amount of published research documenting the extent to which literature-based teaching promotes the knowledge, skills, and values that constitute civic competence. Evidence seems limited, inconclusive, and concentrated on how trade books enhance students' knowledge acquisition. Before embracing the literature-social studies connection without hesitation, educators need expanded research about the effects of this approach, particularly its impact on skill development and values formation. Eeds and Wells (1991) urge us in a sensible direction. They give social studies researchers a task: "to examine what happens when children are allowed to read interesting content and then discuss their reading freely and openly ... with their peers and teacher" (Eeds and Wells 1991, 137).
Because they lack adequate research support, we might accuse proponents of overstating the case for literature-based instruction. We might dismiss their claims as the rhetoric of a passionate interest group. At the same time, methods and materials for using trade books to promote civic competence are readily available (Kiefer 1988; Tiedt 1989). Advocacy pieces proclaiming the benefits of the literature-social studies connection are strikingly plentiful. One of the few points on which social educators generally agree is that trade books have the potential to enhance the social studies curriculum.

A case so compelling must be more than rhetorical. Whether based on research or the personal experiences of trade book advocates, the case must rely on reason as well. We join educators who have advanced the literature-social studies connection and recommend that teachers adopt this potentially productive instructional approach. We also recommend that researchers assemble more evidence so that the effects of literature-based teaching become common knowledge and reason exceeds rhetoric. We feel strongly that their investigations will reveal an important truth. To paraphrase Robert Coles (1989), stories call to all who hold the office of citizen, inspiring us to attain civic competence, so that we can tackle the issues that test our nation's resolve.

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Thomas M. McGowan is Associate Professor of Education at Arizona State University; he teaches social studies methods courses and serves as Coordinator of Scales Professional Development School in Tempe, Arizona.
Lynnette Erickson teaches social studies methods courses at Arizona State University and is completing her dissertation research, a case study of a literature-based approach to teaching social studies.
Judith A. Neufeld teaches social studies methods courses at Arizona State University and is completing a dissertation examining how teachers in a professional development school conceptualize their craft.