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Subject-Specific Resources

Improving Reading Skills in the Social Studies Classroom

For many social studies teachers, helping students develop reading skills is a low priority—nice to do if there's time, but not necessary. After all, there's scarcely time to meet the multitude of state-mandated subject-area learning objectives. Why add reading instruction to the list? The answer is that reading skills are essential to the learning of subjects. In the social studies, students must read to learn. Struggling readers stand to learn a lot less than those who are proficient in reading. Fortunately, you do not need to be a reading specialist to help ensure that no student is left behind. You can make a difference by recognizing social studies-specific reading difficulties and by teaching strategies designed to overcome them.

Student Difficulties in Reading Social Studies Materials
For many students, three major characteristics of social studies materials often present obstacles to learning:

  • Expository Text Studies show that students find it harder to comprehend expository text—"textbook-type" writing that explains concepts—than narrative text—"story-type" writing that describes something that happened. The narrative form is a familiar one from childhood; events are often arranged in simple chronological order, and context often provides clues to the meaning of unfamiliar vocabulary. In contrast, expository text is often organized in more sophisticated patterns, contains unfamiliar vocabulary that cannot be skipped without harming comprehension, and generally provides fewer context clues.

  • Subject-Specific Vocabulary In the social studies, specialized terms often represent sophisticated, abstract concepts that are unfamiliar to students. Consider, for example, manifest destiny, bicameral legislative system, or climatology. Additional difficulties occur when familiar words are used in unfamiliar ways, as in the use of capital in economics.

  • Densely Factual Material In social studies text, facts and details are often condensed. Given the amount of material that typically must be covered in a textbook chapter or a specialized article, authors often omit the kinds of concrete or anecdotal details that help students relate unfamiliar concepts to their own experiences.
Reading Strategies That Work
Over the years, teachers have developed a number of strategies to help students overcome the difficulties associated with reading social studies text. The following techniques are part of the best practices of many classrooms.
  • Demonstrate How to Use Helpful Features of Expository Text Many students fail to use expository text features that promote understanding and learning. Draw students' attention to helpful features, and model how to use them. For example, you might show a class how to use chapter titles, overviews, and headings to determine main ideas, make predictions about content, and set specific purposes for reading. If study questions are interpolated within the text, encourage students to use them to monitor their comprehension of a section of text. If questions are at the end of the entire text, discuss the questions in class before students read the text.

  • Provide Advance Organizers Certain patterns of organization are key to understanding expository text. Those patterns include cause and effect, problem and solution, comparison and contrast, and descending order of importance. Before giving a reading assignment, determine which structure is key. Then provide an "advance organizer" by defining the structure in class. On the board, list common "signal words" that provide clues to the structure. (For example, point out that cause-and-effect relationships are often signaled by words like because, consequently, and as a result.) Finally, distribute copies of an appropriate graphic organizer and direct students to use it to take reading notes. You could also organize students into post-reading groups and direct group members to complete the graphic organizer together.

  • Use Word Webs and Word Walls to Teach Vocabulary Before students encounter an unfamiliar term in text, distribute copies of a word web with these labels: "what ____ means," "what ____ is like," "examples of ____." Define the term and give examples of how it is used. Together with students, begin filling in the blanks in the word web. Then direct students to continue filling in blanks on the web when they encounter the word in the content of a reading assignment. Follow up by creating a word wall. Post students' webs on a classroom bulletin board, or have students create other types of visual aids that help make abstract concepts concrete, such as montages of magazine pictures that relate to the concept.

  • Use Role Plays and K-W-L Charts to Activate Prior Knowledge Before students encounter an unfamiliar term or concept in print, have them role-play a situation that will help them connect the concept to familiar experiences. For example, to teach treaty, compromise, or arbitration, have students role-play situations in which family members who disagree use different techniques to resolve disputes. As an alternative, distribute copies of a three-column chart and ask students what they already know (K) about the concept. Jot down their responses in key terms on a chalkboard, and direct students to copy the responses in the first column of their charts. Follow up by asking students what they want to know (W) or think they need to know about the concept. Have them jot down their responses in the second column of the chart. Finally, instruct students to fill in the third column of the chart with key words about what they have learned (L) as a result of reading the text.
Download your free Active Reading K-W-L reproducible here.





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