A new study published last week by Fordham, Social Studies Instruction and Reading Comprehension: Evidence from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, suggests that to become better readers, elementary students should spend more time on social studies. Using a nationally representative sample of thousands of students who were followed from kindergarten through fifth grade, co-authors Adam Tyner and Sarah Kabourek unearthed several key findings, none more eye-opening than strong reading progress (“clear, positive, and statistically significant”) for students who received an additional thirty minutes a day of social studies instruction.
Amid a renewed focus on curriculum and the link between background knowledge and literacy, the report challenges the conventional wisdom—and standard practice—of most elementary schools, where English language arts (ELA) holds an outsized place in the daily schedule. Indeed, the authors found—paradoxically—that additional time spent on ELA was not associated with reading improvement, buttressing arguments made by E.D. Hirsch and others that a myopic focus on reading skills and strategies can even undermine reading progress.
The well-timed and well-done analysis offers two other recommendations: (1) infuse more content-rich texts and topics into the literacy block and (2) align reading assessments with curricular content à la Louisiana. The overarching theme is clear: Knowledge acquisition is the hidden-in-plain-sight lever that policymakers have seldom thought to pull. Based on the report’s findings, they might do well to get cracking! As Daniel Willingham often says, “Teaching content is teaching reading.”
At the same time, Tyner and Kabourek’s oeuvre comes with a couple of key caveats. The first is that no data on specific curricula or teaching practices were available for the analysis. The second is that other factors, such as teacher quality, could be driving the correlation between class time usage and student learning (more on that below). These are two important points to consider because, as we urge more time on social studies, states and districts would do well to look under the hood and see what’s actually being taught.
To wit, as an earlier Fordham study concluded, social studies today is a “muddled, ineffectual curricular and pedagogical wasteland.” Tyner and Kabourek acknowledge as much by conditioning their recommendations to specify high-quality social studies instruction:
Unfortunately, social studies has long been neglected in American primary schools.... When schools do teach social studies, it is often so watered down or devoid of controversy that it neither builds knowledge nor captures student interest.
Ironically, social studies’ biggest shortcoming is that, as implemented in today’s elementary classrooms, it is largely free of content and coherence. As a former elementary school principal, I’ll admit that social studies was low on my priority list in part because of the curriculum’s utilitarian emphasis on “community helpers”—limiting instruction to institutions with which my students were already familiar—rather than the more engaging but controversial study of heroes and history.
Critics often charge that No Child Left Behind caused schools to neglect social studies (among other subjects) owing to the law’s narrow focus on reading and math. The truth, however, is that very little time (5 percent) was devoted to social studies in elementary classrooms even before NCLB. I suspect it has much to do with the teacher quality hypothesis raised by Tyner and Kabourek. Good social studies requires both knowledgeable teachers and sound curricula. Absent that, there’s not much point to devoting more time to it.
Before tacking on additional curricular time for social studies (or any other discipline), states and districts should lift the veil on present classroom practices. We still have an inexcusably poor understanding of how schools and systems spend billions of dollars on educational materials at a time when the country is correctly fixated on better civics and history education. Without this information, the effort to improve the civic knowledge and attitudes of our students will remain artificially hamstrung.
So yes, a diet rich in content is just what the doctor ordered for our youngest learners, but it’s amazing that the authors found such a strong effect given the “wasteland” that is elementary social studies. Imagine if we taught social studies well instead. The impact could be even greater.