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Only a third of American students are reading proficiently at grade level, according to national benchmark tests. Among low-income students it’s worse. Only one in five students is reading at grade level.
Education journalist Emily Hanford has argued that the failure to teach phonics in the early elementary years may be the problem. Research evidence certainly backs a phonics approach when first teaching kids how to read words but students need a lot more than word recognition to become good readers.
Another idea gaining popularity is that students need to learn more about the world around them in order to grasp the meaning of what they are reading. Early evidence that social studies might be used as a lever to boost reading achievement arrived in September 2020 with a quantitative analysis from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education policy think tank, which directly linked minutes of social studies instruction to higher reading scores.
For years, schools have been cutting back on social studies and doubling down on reading instruction, especially in low-income schools. It’s been a well-intentioned effort to improve reading levels and a response to pressure for students to score high on annual reading tests. Yet reading achievement has remained flat and low for the last 20 years.
“Instead of devoting more class time to English language arts (ELA), we should be teaching elementary school children more social studies—as in, rich content about history, geography, and civics,” wrote the Fordham Institute’s Amber Northern and Michael Petrilli in a foreword to the social studies study. “We’re not the first to find that loads of time devoted to language arts instruction does not improve student reading. But we are the first to find that literacy gains are more likely to materialize when students spend more time learning social studies.”
Before digging into the Fordham Institute’s quantitative analysis, I want to explain why cognitive scientists think that background knowledge is so important in reading comprehension. A small experiment at Marquette University in the 1980s is instructive. Middle school students were asked to read a passage about a half inning of baseball and then reenact the action using wooden figures on a model field. Weaker readers who were familiar with baseball were much better at understanding and remembering the passage than stronger readers who didn’t know much about the sport. It wasn’t the best designed experiment but it makes a point that many other education researchers have since confirmed, that prior knowledge is critical to making sense of new things. “If you lack background knowledge about the topic, ample evidence from the last 40 years indicates you will not comprehend the author’s claims in the first place,” wrote University of Virginia cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, who has studied how our brains learn to read.
Lack of background knowledge amplifies the academic gap between rich and poor kids. High-income children are more likely to travel, go to museums and attend live performances. All this exposure helps them become better readers. Some reading curricula are packed with content knowledge but many schools don’t use them.
Proponents of teaching kids more content are now wondering if it would be easier and more effective to improve reading by encouraging schools to teach a little more history, geography and civics. The Council of Chief State School Officers is currently working with 13 states to encourage the use of knowledge heavy curricula, as well as promoting social studies instruction. The Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy has developed tools to analyze social studies curricula and is currently reviewing how much knowledge the Baltimore and Miami-Dade schools are helping children learn. It also plans to analyze lesson plans created by the 1619 Project, which grew out of a series of New York Times stories that reframe American history around slavery and its consequences.
In the new study, two researchers, Adam Tyner of the Fordham Institute and Sarah Kabourek, a research scientist at the NORC research center at the University of Chicago, looked at data from almost 7,000 students across the U.S. who started kindergarten in 2011. (The students were part of a nationally representative group of students that the U.S. Department of Education tracks. Parents and teachers of these students answer surveys every year so that researchers can study them.) In this case, the researchers counted up how many hours of instruction the students received in all subjects, from reading to science, over the course of five years from first through fifth grades and looked at how those hours of instruction in each subject compared with the students’ fifth grade reading scores.
According to the researchers’ calculations, only social studies — among all the subjects — made a positive impact on reading over the long term. Indeed, for every half hour of additional social studies instruction a child received per day, his or her fifth grade reading scores were 0.15 of a standard deviation higher, on average. Standard deviations are statistical units that are hard to translate but this represents a relatively small increase in test scores. Certainly, social studies isn’t a silver bullet to fix reading but the result here suggests that it might help.
The researchers controlled for students’ socio-economic status, race, home language and many other other student and school characteristics. The boost to reading scores from taking more hours of social studies was true even among students of the same race and family income and who started with the same reading scores in kindergarten. The researchers also checked to see if teachers were giving stronger readers more social studies instruction because they didn’t need as much help with reading but they didn’t find any evidence of that.
Counterintuitively, more minutes of reading instruction were not associated with higher reading scores.
Income did make a difference. Lower income and middle class students experienced the reading gains from social studies classes while students among the top 25 percent in socioeconomic status didn’t get a bump.
The Fordham study found that elementary school children had an average of two hours a day of reading instruction, compared with less than a half hour of social studies. Some students got as little as 15 minutes a day of social studies. Others got three times as much with 45 minutes daily. There was no evidence that high-income children were getting more social studies instruction than low-income children although high-income children were likely to get more minutes of art and music. (See graphic for minutes of instruction per subject.)
It’s not uncommon for schools to schedule extra long “literacy blocks” that can stretch more than two hours a day. During these long periods, teachers often focus on reading skills, such as finding the main idea or determining the author’s perspective in random passages. Based on this evidence, the time might be better spent deeply studying a specific topic, such as the life of Abraham Lincoln.
This study doesn’t prove that social studies is causing the reading gains. Perhaps better teachers are making the decision to teach more social studies. Even if these teachers weren’t teaching any social studies, their students might still be better readers. We need more studies to compare how similar students fare with and without more social studies.
One mystery is science. According to this content knowledge theory of reading comprehension, reading ought to have improved in students who had more minutes of science instruction, too. But it didn’t. Either scientific topics aren’t tested as often on reading tests or something is awry here. The researchers also didn’t find a reading boost from spending more minutes on art, music, physical education and foreign languages, which they lumped together in one category.
Calling for more civics and history instruction is nothing new. Many are nostalgic for the national cohesion that common understandings of our country once fostered. It’s worth noting that the think thank that produced this study, the Fordham Institute, is known for backing other big education reforms, from expanding charter schools to adopting Common Core standards.
If this research proves accurate, implementing new social studies curricula could be controversial. The new calls for content knowledge can run into direct conflict with other theories of education, such as culturally responsive teaching, in which rigorous research has also shown that Black students can thrive when they are taught about Black culture instead of white European history and literature. It can also clash with research on student motivation, in which students feel more excited to read when they choose books that interest them instead of books that are assigned to them.
Despite these issues, the research is worth watching.
This story about social studies and reading was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.
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