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A Presidential Point Linking Literacy Skills with the Social Sciences

I coach Social Studies teachers, and I have been one. Confession: Most subjects seem content-heavy, and I have been guilty of stand-and-deliver instruction. Early in my career, when I was playing the sage-on-the-stage, I thought compliant student behavior meant I had great classroom management. Now I know those poor kids were just polite and probably bored.

As my career evolved, I created more student-focused activities. I also recognized the overlap of literacy standards (see IDOE Social Studies Literacy Standards) with the skills in the content standards. When I morphed both into lesson designs, I also witnessed more student engagement. As I have shared these strategies with other Social Studies teachers, pushback has included everything from: “I just have to get through the content,” to “I don’t have time to cover everything as it is.” I have also heard, “What are the literacy standards? I didn’t even know we had them!”

One teacher just wasn’t interested. I finally asked, “Do you want your students to be better critical thinkers and better consumers of all the information that is circulating out there?” The teacher said yes. The conversation changed from there.

Abraham Lincoln once said, “The philosophy of the school room in one generation will be the philosophy of government in the next.” In a democratic, civil society, the critical thinking application that correlates with literacy skills must be non-negotiables in the social sciences.

In a democratic, civil society, the critical thinking application that correlates with literacy skills must be non-negotiables in the social sciences.

However, it can appear overwhelming to integrate both. The best way to start is to look at the standards in the subject skills and compare them to the literacy standards. Identify any correlations, and plan instruction accordingly.

Here are 3 examples:

1. Creating Arguments with Text Evidence:

Standard 6.1.22 requires students to create arguments for and against historic events according to historical perspectives. Literacy standard LH.2.1 requires students to cite textual evidence from and analyze primary resources. So, if sixth graders are learning about women’s suffrage, from a global or American perspective, they can be assigned speeches and essays to read, annotate, and cite evidence for or against women’s suffrage according to the values of the time.

This strategy can be adapted to all grade levels and subjects, including the Federalists v. Anti-Federalist debate over the U.S. Constitution, creating the League of Nations, or reasons for and against European exploration. Students can work in partners, or teachers can divide students into two sides where each shares their supporting, cited evidence from their primary resources on a Google Jamboard or classroom whiteboard. If differentiated reading levels need to be accommodated, teachers could provide more than one primary resource for each side, based on student reading levels and needs. The goal is for all students to practice citing evidence to support a perspective and analyze others. See the Argumentative Evidence & Primary Resources template. Follow up could also include a simulated debate.


2. Explain and Examine:

When noting the “explain” and “examine” skills in many social studies standards, this is a great opportunity to include LH.5.2, where students “write informative texts, including analyses of historical events.” In World History and Civilization, students are often assessed over the spread of Islam and Christianity through matching and multiple choice tests. These types of checks for understanding can serve a purpose, but if rote memorization is the skill being assessed, is it the best way to track kids’ learning? In WH. 3.3, 3.4, 3.5 and 3.6, “explain, “examine,” and “trace” are the key verbs. Instead of rote memorization, look for opportunities for students to demonstrate their understanding through writing. Get creative - give students an online prompt through Google, Canvas, or Schoology, and have them critique the accuracy of their peers’ responses. Teachers can give live, on-the-spot feedback and identify any common misunderstandings or trends in learning gaps.


3. Compare and Contrast

“Compare and contrast” is another common skill in social studies standards. For many years, the traditional Venn diagram was the go-to tool to catch differing ideas from textbook readings and primary sources. This works for comparing and contrasting basic ideas, like the functionalist, conflict, and interactionist perspectives in Sociology. However, when I taught high school English, my friend and colleague Carrie Rosebrock introduced me to the three-column chart. Adapting these types of graphic organizers from Smekens Education Solutions is a great way to help students interact with similar and different ideas in text. (See Smekens Education Solutions Graphic Organizers).

When comparing texts and ideas that required higher-level thinking, students had specific categories of ideas on which to focus. Then, they would go back and highlight similar evidence in one color and differing ones in another. This helps with identifying central ideas (LH 2.2) and equipping students to determine key words and phrases (LH 3.1) in text. Three-column charts can be used to compare and contrast the UN Declaration of Rights to the U.S. Bill of Rights, speeches by world leaders, and one group or nation’s beliefs on a global policy or conflict versus another’s.

A 3-column T-chart can also be used to compare and contrast similar or different ideas across multiple sources and types of text or media, such as the writings of W.E.B. Du Bois to Booker T. Washington’s. I used to have students compare and contrast the central ideas from John Locke’s Social Contract Theory in The Declaration of Independence to a documentary about the 1963 Children’s March in Birmingham, Alabama. Here is a sample 3-column-T-chart for this activity that can be adapted for other comparisons.

Also to note: There are multiple Children’s March documentaries, so preview language, scenes, and discuss with an administrator to ensure what you choose is age and school appropriate. PBS has produced a segment (see timestamps 4:40 to 15:20), and the film I have used was produced by Learning for Justice, which also has accompanying instructional resources. This version can also be found on Youtube.


Integrating literacy standards into social studies curriculum does not increase teacher workload. It can actually facilitate a range of depth of knowledge activities that can be efficiently assessed to measure student success. Teachers probably don’t realize they are already doing both. The focus should be on how these activities and checks for understanding are engaging students and critical thinking. President Lincoln would ask nothing less!

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