Connecting Literacy with Social Studies Content

Margaret J. Johnson and Carole Janisch

The children in Mrs. Judy Roger's third grade classroom recently began a unit on the age of exploration and colonial America, and a large K-W-L chart now dominates one wall. The children have listed what they know about the voyages of Columbus in the K column and posed questions indicating what they want to know in the W column. On this morning, small groups of children are poring over information books on Columbus and other explorers seeking answers that they will subsequently post in the L column, indicating what they have learned. In the process, several children have found that some of their claims in the K column were erroneous.

"Oh," Chelsea exclaims, "Look at this. The Mayflower wasn't one of Columbus' ships. The Mayflower was the Pilgrims' ship."

The children in Chelsea's group verify her finding and then correct the K-W-L chart using a blue marker, which is the color marker they use to indicate changes and corrections. Soon the children begin to write in their journals in response to their group discussions and the reading they have done that morning.

A visitor to the classroom compliments Mrs. Rogers on an interesting social studies lesson. The teacher explains to the visitor that the students have just completed their English/language arts period. "The children are working on comprehending informational texts. In their groups and in their journals they compare sources, and compare their own ideas with the information they find in books."

Mrs. Rogers and her colleagues at Ramirez Elementary School in Lubbock, Texas, use thematic teaching to make connections across subject areas, and to provide students with rich literacy instruction. The teachers, participants in a project to design curriculum that links literacy with content knowledge, have found that focusing on social studies topics is an effective way to organize their students' literacy learning.

For this project, the teachers selected areas of content that they believed would be of interest to their students. For example, a fifth grade teacher combined a study of the American Civil War with a study of other civil conflicts, including the events in Bosnia. A sixth grade teacher focused a geography unit on parts of the world to which the children in her class traced their roots. The class studied China, Mexico, and West Africa. These units of study formed the basis of instruction for social studies and also for reading and English/language arts.

One criterion for selecting thematic unit topics was the variety of appropriate materials available. For example, Mrs. Rogers was able to amass a collection of literature of different genres about colonial times: historical fiction, information books, and reference books. To accommodate the varying levels of reading ability in her classroom, she chose materials on different reading levels. In addition, she was able to provide students with CD-ROMs and videos on the topics.

In some instances, teachers were not experts on the themes they chose. For example, a teacher teaching a unit on the Middle Ages explained that she chose the topic because it was one about which she wanted to know more. "It's been wonderful," she noted, "to build our knowledge together. As the students discovered interesting pieces of information, they took great pride in sharing them with me, as if they were bringing me presents."

In many elementary classrooms, social studies instruction is limited to very brief periods each week. By using social studies as a vehicle for instruction in reading and English/language arts, teachers are able to capture extensive blocks of time that permit children to study social studies topics in depth. The following sections explain how Ramirez Elementary School teachers used social studies content to enhance their students' reading, writing, and thinking.

Recent research in reading reveals strong connections between the knowledge a reader brings to a text and the reader's capacity to comprehend the text.1 Reading selections in intermediate classrooms are often fragmented, consisting of collections of reading passages on unrelated themes. Whatever knowledge children gain from reading one passage does not necessarily aid comprehension of their next reading selections. In contrast, when children focus on a particular theme or topic, their understandings build, and they can bring an increasing body of knowledge to their subsequent reading of texts related to the subject.

Ramirez Elementary School prepared students for reading success by helping them build and organize their topical knowledge prior to reading. This was usually done through non-print materials (e.g., videos) or graphic organizers. Sometimes teachers and students made charts to document their prior knowledge and to generate questions they wanted to answer. In other instances, teachers read aloud a particularly engaging story or book to introduce a topic and arouse interest.

The teachers recognized the importance of strategies that help students with reading comprehension and content area learning. Such strategies include helping students to develop an awareness of question/ answer relationships, to understand the structure of texts, and to develop their vocabularies.

Mrs. Rogers' taught her third grade students the Question-Answer-Relationship (QAR) strategy for posing, analyzing, and answering questions.2 For example, as the children read informational books about the founding of Jamestown, they learned to pose literal questions (In what year did the settlers arrive?), questions that required them to combine information from different sections of the text (How did conditions in the colony change from the first year to the second?), and inferential questions (Was John Smith a good leader?). These questioning strategies helped to heighten the students' knowledge of content and their ability to derive meaning from expository prose.

Ms. Gomez decided that her fifth grade students needed explicit instruction in text structure to help them read informational articles and books. She taught them to look for headings, subheadings, bold print, and other features common to informational text. In addition, Ms. Gomez stressed eliciting students' personal responses to what they read. She asked them to articulate what the text reminded them of and how it made them feel. For example, when they read Zlata's Diary, a young girl's account of the civil war in Bosnia, Ms. Gomez's students were moved by the experiences of children in Sarajevo and willingly talked and wrote about their feelings.3

The teachers used a variety of vocabulary-building strategies. For example, as part of their study of the Middle Ages, students created vocabulary journals that recorded terms and definitions for the specialized words they were learning. The fifth graders often worked in small groups to brainstorm definitions, connotations, and implications of vocabulary terms. They displayed the results of their efforts on "word walls" in their classroom and in the school's hallways. The third grade classroom had a display of "Hitchhiking Bubbles" (see photo). With the help of a one word prompt, students recorded familiar words similar in meaning to the prompt to help them understand the new vocabulary term. For example, the familiar word "soup" was linked through students' associations to the word "pottage," a food popular in colonial times.

In all the intermediate classes, reading was also accompanied by group discussion. Teachers often found novels to accompany social studies topics. Fifth graders read True North as part of their Civil War studies. As they read their books, students would get together periodically in literature circles to discuss the reading and share responses and interpretations of the books.4 Thus comprehension was deepened through social interaction and discussion.5


Some of the writing activities children engaged in were intended to promote reading comprehension. Journals were used extensively to help children record information from their reading and to help them understand their responses to their learning. Other writing activities were intended to help children learn how to organize and communicate their knowledge and ideas to others. Because motivation for writing occurs when children have real reasons to write, sharing information and receiving responses from others can be a powerful incentive.6

Reading, writing, and social studies were integrated by sixth grade students as they used ClarisWorks to create accurate travel brochures about Africa. Composing persuasive essays was part of the sixth grade writing curriculum, so students used their skills to write brochures that would convince tourists to visit particular places in Africa. The students gathered information from a variety of sources (informational books, encyclopedias, the internet, CD-ROMs) and wrote compositions that demonstrated both their knowledge of the area and their ability to think and mount a persuasive argument.

Students were able to connect their reading and writing by learning to read like a writer.7 For example, when classes read historical fiction, they did so with multiple purposes. One purpose was to examine the author's craft and to discover how he or she combined historical characters and events with fictional characters and situations. Another purpose was to determine how the authors created a sense of time and place. The children used the authors as their writing "teachers" to help them compose their own historical fiction stories.

All students in intermediate grades conducted research on social studies topics and wrote about their findings. Ms. Gomez noted that using social studies content to teach students how to write a report changed the attitudes of both students and teachers toward the "dreaded research paper." Because students chose their particular topics and were interested in learning as much as they could, their research projects took on an air of excitement rather than one of dread. In all classes, students had opportunities to work with writing partners. In one instance, third graders collectively generated a timeline related to colonial times and cooperatively wrote the narrative to accompany it.

Even when students worked on individual pieces, they did not do so alone. Students read drafts of their writing to classmates to check for clarity and gather responses. Writing was considered a communicative act and a public act. Students published their writing by creating books for classroom libraries, displays, computer programs, and video presentations. Children were able to impart their understandings to others and to learn from the writing of their classmates.


As teachers devised instructional strategies to deal with the content, they helped children think critically about the topics under study. For example, teachers taught children how to compare, contrast, and draw conclusions by linking topics and noting connections. Thus, the students studying the American Civil War and the recent events in Bosnia addressed the elements these conflicts had in common and ways in which they differed. Their study of one civil conflict illuminated and informed their study of another. As students consulted various sources, their teacher encouraged them to evaluate them and judge their quality. The children checked for accuracy, thoroughness, bias, and point of view. As the children acquired information, Ms. Gomez challenged them to draw conclusions, put forth arguments, and generate informed opinions.

Tapping the Power of Engagement

The power of literacy engagement to enhance literacy skills is illustrated by the experiences of Andre, a student in Ms. Gomez's fifth grade class, who arrived after the school year had begun. Ms. Gomez gave him an informal reading assessment that confirmed her observation that he was reading well below grade level. Ms. Gomez read a biography of Harriet Tubman aloud to the class one day. She noted that Andre had moved from the back of the room to a spot next to her. He became fascinated with the life and works of Harriet Tubman, and chose to do his research project on Tubman and the underground railroad. He asked the librarian to find him all the books and materials she could. Soon, when other students in the class came across a reference to Tubman in pursuing their own research topics, they would point out the source to Andre.

Andre quickly became very knowledgeable about Tubman, and his teacher realized that he was able to comprehend materials on this topic that were beyond his measured reading ability. Andre was strongly motivated to gain meaning from even difficult texts, and brought his prior knowledge, persistence, and all his skills to bear on the task. When he consulted texts with challenging vocabulary and text structure, he was able to comprehend them and take a personal stance through using his growing knowledge and interest. Ms. Gomez indicated that "no text was too difficult for him to read because he was so involved in the research." When Ms. Gomez retested Andre at the end of the school year, she found that he had made impressive gains in reading.


All teachers want their students to expand and enlarge their content area knowledge and to become competent users of literacy. The teachers described in this article adopted the premise that content area learning and literacy learning occur concurrently, and planned literacy lessons based on social studies content. Students used the knowledge they acquired to improve their thinking skills as they asked questions such as: What does this mean to me? How can I relate it to what I already know? How can I apply it to a new context? Is there any bias?

As children engage in reading and writing to gain information on social studies themes, they simultaneously develop their abilities to read and write. The need and desire to find out about the voyages of Columbus, or to know more about the courage of those traveling on the underground railroad, provided functional and authentic purposes for literacy activities.

Student excitement and interest in a topic served as scaffolds for developing important literacy skills they could apply to any topic. Teachers sometimes say they would like to teach more social studies content, but worry about what they would have to give up. By using social studies themes as the content in their reading and English/language arts lessons, these intermediate teachers were able to explore social studies topics in depth while helping their students become skilled readers, writers, and thinkers.


1. Linda G. Fielding and P. David Pearson, "Reading Comprehension: What Works, Educational Leadership 51 (1994): 62-68.

2. For a description of the QAR technique, see Taffy E. Raphael, "Teaching Question Answer Relationships, Revisited," The Reading Teacher 39 (1986): 564-570.

3. For a discussion of the value of taking an aesthetic stance when reading nonfiction, see Louise Rosenblatt, "LiteratureóS.O.S.!" Language Arts 68 (1991): 444-448.

4. See Maryann Eeds and Deborah Wells, "Talking, Thinking, and Cooperative Learning: Lessons Learned from Listening to Children Talk about Books," Social Education 55 (1991): 134-137 for a description of literacy circles.

5. James R. Gavelek and Taffy E. Raphael, "Changing Talk about Text," Language Arts 73 (1996): 182-192.

6. For a general discussion of motivation and writing, see Donald Graves, A Fresh Look at Writing (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Press, 1994); and Lucy Calkins, The Art of Teaching Writing (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Press, 1994).

7. Frank Smith, "Reading Like a Writer," Language Arts 60 (1983): 558-567.

Children's Books

Filipovic, Zlata. Zlata's Diary. New York: Viking, 1994.

Lasky, Kathryn. True North: A Novel of the Underground Railroad. New York: Blue Sky Press, 1996.

About the Authors

Margaret J. Johnson is an assistant professor at Texas Tech University teaching in the program areas of elementary education and language/literacy. Carole Janisch is an assistant professor in the College of Education at Texas Tech University and director of the Early Literacy Learning Initiative training site.