Linking Social Studies and Literacy Development through Children's Books

Kathryn Button

We don't achieve literacy and then give children literature; we achieve literacy through literature.

--Charlotte Huck

Children's literature is a powerful tool for linking social studies learning and literacy development in primary age children. In the past several decades, the quantity and quality of literature for children has increased greatly, so that teachers today can choose from a variety of genres on many social studies topics. Literature can provide children with vicarious experiences, so that they can feel and experience history, be transported to another time and place, and return a bit changed by the events.

Reading Aloud to Children

Using social studies themes with literacy instruction can involve different forms of presentation.1 Read alouds are the foundation for other reading and writing activities in primary classrooms. They should occur many times during the day and include various genres. When teachers read aloud to children, they are modeling a love of literature and the enjoyment of reading. Reading aloud also introduces children to information related to topics under study. It develops literacy skills by helping children explore book language, develop a sense of story and a knowledge of characters, and develop fluency in reading.

Narrative texts, such as When Jessie Came Across the Sea, can help youngsters understand what life was like for people long ago and far away. When narrative texts tell a story about well-developed characters, children can know what it was like to walk in their shoes. In addition to narrative texts, children can also share events and emotions with the characters in picture story books.

Informational texts can also serve as excellent read alouds. Some books can be read in their entirety in one session; at other times, teachers may want to dip into a text, reading sections appropriate to the topic of study. Inasmuch as young children can listen with comprehension to texts beyond their reading level, teachers may read aloud books that would be too difficult for children to read independently. These experiences can stretch young readers and prepare them for future encounters with challenging texts.

Illustrations are an important feature of picture story books. Rich illustrations not only delight the reader, but can also extend the text and support children's understanding of the story. Graphic forms such as photographs, drawings, diagrams, and maps in expository texts convey information that helps young children to derive meaning from the text. They also promote the development of visual literacy.

"Please read it again!" is a common reaction to a good story read aloud. Revisiting a text--during the same day, the next day, or even the next week--is necessary for children to construct the meaning of the story, to learn about story structure, and to develop new vocabulary. With each rereading, children attend to different details in the text and illustrations. They are learning information, and learning about reading.

There are resources available to assist teachers in their selection of appropriate, high quality books. The Horn Book and Book Links are devoted to reviewing new books. Book Links is organized by topic, with articles that provide background information on the subject, annotated entries, and suggestions for using particular books in classroom activities.

Teaching a Thematic Unit

Two teachers and a literacy coordinator planned a social studies thematic unit for two classes of second grade students. The classes did a study on immigration followed by a unit on the construction of the transcontinental railroad, with emphasis on the role that the immigrant Irish and Chinese railroad workers played.

As the teachers began implementing their units, they placed books on immigration and railroad building on a table covered with white paper. The teachers encouraged the children to browse through the books and to write their observations and questions regarding the books on the paper. The teachers used the information they gathered from the children's writing as the basis of a K-W-L (what do we Know, what do we Want to know, what have we Learned?) chart.

Brittany wrote, for example, "I like the picture of the kitchen car on the work train." This observation led the children to ask questions related to what foods the workers ate, how the food was kept cold, and whether the workers were given snacks. These three questions were listed under the "W" on their K-W-L chart. Through further reading, the class learned that the Chinese immigrants lived off a simple diet of rice, and that a herd of cattle was driven alongside the train to provide beef for the Union Pacific Railroad crew. This new bit of information was recorded under the "L" on the chart.

Teachers conducted daily read alouds that provided the students with the background knowledge to write about the difficulties faced by the Chinese immigrant workers of the Union Pacific Railroad, and how different they were from those faced by the Irish immigrant workers employed by the Central Pacific Railroad. During shared writing--a time when teachers record students' ideas or stories on large chart paper for all to read--the teachers listed events that the children named as important during the class discussions that followed each read aloud session.

The topics in the thematic unit also served as subjects for student writing during writer's workshop. The literacy coordinator, Mrs. Jan Bogard, told the second graders to "write about what you know." As the students wrote about the construction of the railroad or the Chinese immigrant work trains, their teachers discussed with them the mechanics and craft of writing. At the end of each writer's workshop, the classes met to share a few of their stories and play TAG. This is a time when students Tell something they like about a story, Ask a question, and Give a suggestion.

At the end of one writer's workshop, a student named Jasmine read her story about the work train. Another student, Cory, told her that he liked the details that she had included about the Chinese immigrant workers, while KiKi said he liked the vocabulary she used when she wrote about "the dangerous journey crossing the mountains and the challenges that the workers faced." Monique asked Jasmine when, during the construction of the railroad, her story took place. Jeremy then suggested that Jasmine might want to add that to her story, so that readers would know that the immigrants had been working for longer than a month. Mrs. Bogard explained that "the process of writing and sharing, adding more details or a new lead or ending and then sharing again, had made the students stronger writers. They were truly involved in the learning. They could answer the questions we asked of them."

As a culminating activity for their theme cycle, the students in the two second grade classrooms prepared to videotape their reenactment of construction on the transcontinental railroad. They worked on the script during their writer's workshop. The teachers assisted the students in sequencing their stories for the narration of their production. Together, they wrote the segues that tied the pieces together. The students then referred to their editing check list, verifying that their play had a good beginning, middle and ending, and that they had included enough detail and used good vocabulary.

Sets were in place, the stage hands stood ready with a poster-size placard of their title, "The Race: A Ribbon of Steel," and the narrator began:

President Lincoln gave the order. Build a railroad! He hired two companies. One started in Sacramento, California. The other one started in Omaha, Nebraska. Ten thousand Chinese workers started in California. Rowdy Irish immigrants started in Omaha. And the race was on!

As the first act ended, the student chorus chanted the refrain, written by the class during interactive writing--a time when individual children do the actual work of recording class-generated text on large chart paper.

"Hear the gang work on the tracks,

Chicka, chicka, ch-ch,

Carrying ties on their backs,

Chicka, chicka, ch-ch,

Hitting spikes into the rails,

Chicka, chicka, ch-ch,

What a story they could tell,

Chicka, chicka, ch-ch!"

The children created a presentation that was historically accurate, and they learned about the pounding of the golden spike and the hardships endured by the Chinese and Irish immigrant workers aboard the work trains. For the six weeks prior to the taping, the teachers read to students using books borrowed from the school library and purchased from local book stores. By the time the students began to work on their dramatic reenactment, they were familiar with the facts related to this historic happening. They made use of the books and the knowledge they gained from the read aloud sessions as they constructed their sets and wrote the script. The use of quality children's literature served as the basis of the children's social studies learning and their development as readers and writers.

Children's Books on Immigration

The following books were selected for use in the primary classrooms. Criteria for selection included a compelling story line, accuracy of information, and authentic illustrations. The selections include expository and narrative texts, and texts illustrated by drawings and photographs. The books vary in their readability and deal with different aspects of the topic of immigration.

Watch the Stars Come Out

Riki Levinson
New York: Dutton, 1985

One Friday evening, Grandma tells her red-haired granddaughter the story of her own mother's trip to America in the late nineteenth century. Grandma's mama, also a red-haired girl, spent 23 days with her older brother crossing the Atlantic to join her parents and older sister, who were already living in New York. With only two bundles of clothing, a bag of dried fruit, and a small rag doll, Grandma's mama and her brother endured the rocky crossing. After being processed on Ellis Island, the children were taken to their new home, a three-room tenement on New York's Lower East Side, where at last Grandma's mama was able to lie in her bed and watch the stars come out. The muted pictures, painted by Diane Goode, create a feeling of distance for the reader, as if they are viewing the story in a photograph album.

American Too

Elisa Bartone
New York: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, 1996

As Rosina and her family arrive in New York Harbor, they are greeted by the Lady with the Lamp. The grandeur of the Statue of Liberty inspires Rosina to believe that in America "anything is possible." Rosina begins her quest by changing her name to Rosie, in an attempt to become "really American" in the eyes of her peers. The turning point of her modernization comes when her Mulberry Street neighborhood selects her to be the queen of their Italian Feast of San Gennaro. Everyone in the community prepares for the feast and, in her secret way, so does Rosie, as she tries to blend the old traditions of Italy with the new traditions of America. Rosie's adventure was inspired by a true story told to author Elisa Bartone by her great uncle. Ted Lewin's bold and detailed watercolor paintings depict a historically accurate view of New York's Lower East Side during the early 1920s.

When Jessie Came Across the Sea

Amy Hest
Cambridge, MA: Candlewick, 1997

Thirteen-year-old Jessie is selected by the rabbi in her small, poor, eastern European village to use his ticket to travel to America, "the promised land." The young orphan leaves her grandmother in the early 1900s to sail across the ocean to New York City. To occupy her time during the long hours of the voyage, Jessie sews lace--something her grandmother taught her to do just in case "sometime, you never know, you may want to sew some things. . . you may want to earn some money." The passengers' coat collars and cuffs soon are adorned with Jessie's lace. The rabbi's widowed sister-in-law, Kay, meets Jessie on Ellis Island. For the next three years, Jessie sews dresses in Kay's dress shop, saving enough money to send her grandmother a ticket to join her in America. Both the text and the large watercolor and gouache illustrations by R. J. Lynch were examined for authenticity by the staff of the Jewish Museum in New York.

Immigrant Kids

Russell Freedman
New York: Scholastic, 1990

"The streets. . . gave us the first clear idea of what life in America was really going to be like," reflected immigrant Irving Howe. Sophie Ruskay, another immigrant, goes on to say that, "children owned the streets in a way unthinkable to city children of today. There were a few parks, but too distant to be of any use, and so the street was the common playground." Freedman weaves these and other immigrant stories into his extensive documentation of the life of immigrant kids between the late 1800s and the early 1900s. Archival photographs accurately depict scenes of the all too frequent sweatshops, the crowded tenement houses, and the "newsies" asleep in front of the newspaper offices, waiting for the morning news to "roll off the presses," indicating the start of a new work day. In five fact-filled chapters, Freedman acquaints the reader with the immigrants' arrival at Ellis Island, their homes in the crowed cities, and their schools. The reader learns that immigrant children entered the work force at age fourteen, working ten hours a day, six days a week, to assist in the support of their families. In what little free time they had, the streets often became their playgrounds.

Tracks Across America: The Story of the American Railroad 1825-1900

Leonard Everett Fisher
New York: Holiday House, 1992

". . . the Iron Horse, the earth-shaker, the fire breather . . . shall build an empire and an epic." When the railroads began crisscrossing the nation, some thought that it was a magical event, while others thought it was the shattering of an old and good order. Fisher uses black and white photographs, drawings, and maps to present a comprehensive history of the development of the American railroad during the nineteenth century. His twelve chapters detail the first locomotives, the role of the railroad during the Civil War, and the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad by large numbers of Irish, Scandinavian, German, and Chinese immigrants.


1. See a description of the Early Literacy Framework in K. Button and D. Welton, "Integrating Literacy Activities and Social Studies in Primary Grades," Social Studies and the Young Learner 9, No. 4 (1997): 15-18.

About the Author

Kathryn Button is an associate professor in the College of Education at Texas Tech University and directs the Early Literacy Learning Initiative training site.