Trade-Offs Embedded in the Literary Approach to Early Elementary Social Studies

Janet Alleman, Jere Brophy

Recent critics of social studies textbook series have shown consensus around several observations. They have characterized the textbooks of the 1980s as limited in value as learning resources because: topics are covered too broadly without sufficient depth; too many facts are presented in isolation; information about women and minorities is often tacked on rather than integrated in natural ways; excessive space is allocated to pictures and graphics that are unrelated to the text or not accompanied by sufficient explanation; and procedural knowledge is taught essentially separately from propositional knowledge. This separation is accomplished primarily through isolated skill exercises rather than through authentic activities that involve using skills to apply knowledge in natural ways (Elliot & Woodward, 1990; Larkins, Hawkins, & Gilmore, 1987; Tyson-Bernstein, 1988). We share these concerns, but in this article, we focus on a newly emerging problem, namely the inclusion and use of literature selections in K-3 social studies texts.

Over the past five years we have been examining elementary social studies texts in an effort to better understand the enacted curricula that would result if teachers not only used the textbooks but followed the manuals’ suggestions concerning discourse, activities, and assessment. The examples used in this article were drawn from the K-3 texts in the 1991 Houghton Mifflin series. This series was selected because it was designed to address some of the criticisms of the 1980s’ expanding communities series that had become so similar to one another and because it incorporated children’s literature into its texts.

We find that this series offers several advantages over the others, including acceleration of substance (especially in geography and history), good use of maps and pictorial material in developing key ideas, and generally good suggestions for in-class and homework activities. On the other hand, some of its novel elements, especially its literature inserts, have introduced some new problems all their own. Literature selections often run several pages, and exceed the space allocated to covering social studies content. Some units look more like language arts than social studies. Also, many selections focus on trivial and peripheral aspects of social studies. Even when these literary sources provide appeal and interest, they often distract from the main social education understandings, and in the worst cases they create potential misconceptions or actually contradict social studies goals. We also find examples where the instructional activities accompanying the literary work shift the instruction to language arts. The social studies goals and the major understandings that ostensibly were to be developed get lost in the shuffle.

Examples of Literature Used Effectively

Some literary selections are very well suited to the lesson or unit to which they are attached. These selections seem likely to help teachers develop students’ knowledge and appreciation of the topics in ways that promote progress toward major social education goals. For example, in a kindergarten unit on community, students are introduced to a poem entitled The General Store. They are encouraged to listen to the poem, imagine what the store looks like, and determine if it is old or new. A series of questions that personalize the learning follows. (Examples include: “Would you like to own a store like this one?”; “Would you rather shop in a general store or modern one?” “Why?”). This piece of literature represents a good example of matching the goal and enhancing both the cognitive and affective dimensions of the unit.

When I was Young in the Mountains is included as part of a second-grade unit focusing on families. We view this selection as useful for enriching students’ understanding and appreciation of life in the past. It fits well with a lesson that addresses life “long ago.” Another fine example, included in a third-grade unit entitled Beyond the Appalachians, is Fresh Water to Drink. This is a chapter from the novel Little House on the Prarie that describes the efforts and dangers involved in digging a well for the family. The story is a good one for making the social studies content come to life. It is written from a child’s point of view–very engaging to a third grader–presenting a powerful, effective, and cognitive perspective on pioneer life.

Problems in Literature Selections and Use

More typically, however, the literature selections focus on aspects of the topic that are relatively trivial or peripheral from the perspective of social studies purposes and goals. For example, a first-grade unit entitled All Around the Big World, includes an array of inserted literary works: a four-page story, The Riddle of the Drum, followed by a song, Are You Sleeping, and two poems, Block City and Happy Thought. None of these selections has much to do with the unit’s goals. Such a smattering of unrelated sources from unrelated places leads to little more than confusion. Too often, literature selections are assumed to be good because they bring “affect” to social studies. Unless they support progress toward social education goals, however, they should not be viewed as effective.

Another general concern about literary selections is their potential for trivializing the content. This especially becomes a problem when folk tales and myths are used in cultural units rooted in history and anthropology. For example, in one third-grade text, several chapters are devoted to The Land and the First Americans. There is some good content about Native American religious beliefs and practices (common themes of reverence to nature and supplication for God’s help in providing rain, bountiful harvest, etc.). However, this content is not presented sympathetically. The focus is on tribal myths, folk tales, and ceremonial dances, without mention of modern parallels such as crop blessings, religious rites of passage to adulthood, or marriage and funeral ceremonies. As a result, these Native American beliefs and customs are made to appear primitive or bizarre. Perhaps the publishers are afraid of getting “too close” to modern religions. In any case, part of the problem is the literature emphasis on folk tales and myths. This integration of good stories often leads to bad cultural content choices. The net result is the fostering of stereotypes, rather than understanding, of Native American culture.

Partly because so much space is devoted to literature selections, coverage of basic social knowledge content traditionally taught in the primary grades is very uneven. Also, far too often, instead of enriching the social studies curriculum, these literary selections have the effect of extending the language arts and literature curriculum at the expense of the social studies curriculum (if the latter is defined as learning opportunities that support student progress toward social studies purposes and goals). Some literature choices do not relate well to the social studies unit topic. Others have some relevance but nevertheless reduce the scope and disrupt the flow of the social studies curriculum because they are used as a basis for associated activities that are primarily language arts. A poem entitled The End in a lesson entitled We Grow and Change spans ages one to six. It begins, “When I was one, I had just begun” and continues through, “But now I’m six, I’m as clever as clever. So I think I’ll be six now and forever and ever.” Students are to decide why the poem was entitled The End, to match the stanzas with the pictures, and for at least one reading, supply the last word of each rhyme. None of these activities, in our opinion, enhance social education understandings.

Pelle’s New Suit and The Purse are two literary works that relate to a second-grade text’s theme of Depending on Others. However, the supportive activities focus on language arts. Follow-up to Pelle’s New Suit begins with review of the steps involved in making Pelle’s suit and a discussion of the ways we get new clothes. Then, however, the emphasis shifts to language arts. The children are to answer a series of story comprehension questions, then engage in a letter-writing exercise centered on telling an imaginary friend about the new suit. This experience is followed by a shift to a story entitled The Purse. Students are asked to compare how Pelle got his new suit with how Katie got what she wanted in The Purse. Katie liked the clinkity-clinkity sound of the money in a Band-Aid box. Students are to name sounds that they especially like and tell how the sounds make them feel. Then each child is to demonstrate a sound or draw a picture of what makes the sound. The lesson concludes with a dramatization of the stories and the suggestion that students create their own dialogue for both stories.

Some literature selections actually contradict the intended goals or create misconceptions. For example, in one kindergarten text that introduces far away places, children are introduced to a poem entitled, The Edge of the World. While it is a spirited selection and engenders wonder, its social education value is dubious. Phrases such as “sail over the rim” and “what lies over the rim” create confusion by contradicting what children are taught about the earth’s shape and features. A first-grade lesson about friendship includes The Little Red Hen. This selection is a poor choice for this topic because it conflates personal friendship with prosocial and Golden Rule behavior. In the story, the Little Red Hen calls her friends together to solicit their help in planting and harvesting a field of wheat. Her friends refuse to help her, so when it is time to eat the fruits of her labor, she refuses to share. The story features characters who are unhelpful and spiteful and carries an undertone suggesting that friendship is conditional. These are not values we wish to instill through our social studies teaching.

Another example that we would label “cute,” lacking educational value, and potentially creating misconceptions was found in a second-grade text. The poem, Truck Song, included as part of a lesson about transportation, does not present realism about the trucking industry. Instead, it is a romanticized, lighthearted, fanciful version of the trucker’s journey. The students are told that the author left out all punctuation so that readers could feel what it was like to drive and drive without stopping, the way a trucker does. Even if this feature has its intended effect, which seems unlikely, the poem misconstrues the real world of regulations to which truckers must adhere. The portrayal of the trip itself is not an accurate portrait of a likely journey or of the life of a long-distance truck driver. Why create misconceptions or unnecessarily shallow interpretations that later have to be unraveled?

Questions for Assessing Literature in Social Studies

In summary, the literature approach to K-3 social studies has some potential for deepening the cognitive and affective dimensions of content, but it introduces some new problems of its own.

Literature selections often:
• focus on trivial aspects of the main topic;
• devote excessive space to literary works at the expense of social knowledge content;
• are too advanced for students to read independently;
• have activities associated with the literature selections which are often more closely aligned with language arts than with social studies; and
• can contradict intended goals or create stereotypes.
In view of these concerns, we suggest that K-3 teachers consider the following questions in order to make thoughtful decisions regarding the inclusion of literature in the social studies curriculum.

Does the literary source:
• match the social education goals for the lesson and unit?
• offer sufficient value as a source for social education content and a basis for social education activities to justify the social studies time that will be allocated for it?
• seem to be of appropriate length given the social knowledge that needs to be included for adequate sense-making?
• enhance meaning and not trivialize the content?
• reflect authenticity and promote understanding of the content?
• enrich social studies understandings as well as promote language arts or other subject-matter content or skills?
• avoid potential misconceptions, unnecessarily shallow interpretations, or stereotypes in its depiction of people and events?

Elliot, D., & Woodward, A. (Eds.). (1990). Textbooks and schooling in the United States. (89th Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education. Part I). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Larkins, A., Hawkins, M., & Gilmore, A. (1987). Trivial and noninformative content of elementary social studies: A review of primary texts in four series. Theory and Research in Social Education, 15, 299-311.
Tyson-Bernstein, H. (1988). A conspiracy of good intentions: America’s textbook fiasco. Washington, DC: Council for Basic Education.

About the Authors
Janet Alleman is Professor and Jere Brophy, University Distinguished Professor, both in Teacher Education at Michigan State University. They collaborate on research in the area of elementary social studies.