Editor’s note: The Thomas B. Fordham Institute recently launched “The Acceleration Imperative,” a crowd-sourced, evidence-based resource designed to aid instructional leaders’ efforts to address the enormous challenges faced by their students, families, teachers, and staff over the past year. It comprises four chapters split into nineteen individual topics. We're publishing each as a stand-alone blog post.
Science and social studies, including history and geography, are each important in their own right, given schools’ essential mission to prepare students for citizenship in our democracy. And the critical role that content knowledge plays in learning to read and write is clearly established and has received increased attention in recent years.
The cultivation of such knowledge will not happen by accident, but instead is the result of systematic exposure to high-quality, content-rich instruction. The use of an outstanding curriculum, taught with care and seriousness, is vital to this pursuit. Elementary schools must protect instructional time for these subjects, including when recovering from pandemic-related learning loss. The evidence indicates that schools should commit to forty-five minutes of daily lessons each for science and for social studies lessons.
- Establish science and social studies as part of the daily core of elementary school instruction, rather than “special” subjects that happen once or twice a week.
- Adopt and faithfully implement a high-quality science curriculum that is rich in content knowledge and well respected by external reviewers like EdReports and Louisiana Believes. One curriculum to consider is Amplify Science.
- Adopt and faithfully implement a high-quality social studies curriculum that is rich in content knowledge and culturally relevant. Leading reviewers do not rate such programs. Still, we are enthusiastic about Core Knowledge History and Geography, which provides a comprehensive and sequential exploration of world and American history and geography.
Learning about science and social studies, especially history and geography, is valuable on its own, and a broad knowledge base in these subjects prepares elementary-school students to effectively participate in civic life. It also expands their capacity to assimilate new, more complex information related to these areas throughout their schooling and beyond.
Yet too often, elementary schools spend the bulk of instructional time on skills practice that is not grounded in rich content. The cost of a knowledge-light elementary school experience is paid most heavily by children who grow up in poverty. These are the students who often aren’t benefiting from summer vacations to Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park or family conversations over the dinner table about deforestation in the Brazilian rainforest.
This has broad implications for literacy, too. Studies show that when low-income children are explicitly taught the background knowledge contained on tests of reading comprehension, they perform equally well as their higher income peers on those tests.
Consider the “baseball study.” Researchers compared the reading comprehension of four groups of students tasked reading a passage about baseball: “good” and “poor” readers (based on standardized test scores) who either knew or didn’t know something about the game. Not only did the “poor” readers who knew something about baseball outperform the ostensibly good readers who knew nothing about the game, the poor readers who knew something about baseball performed almost as well as the good readers who did. This suggests that prior knowledge of the topic of a reading passage compensates for a relative lack of reading “skill.”
This echoes international education comparisons that find that high-performing countries tend to use high-quality curricula that build content knowledge. A recent study by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute also found that increasing instructional time in social studies is associated with improved reading ability, while more time in English language arts instruction is not. The benefits are particularly strong for girls and children from lower-income or non-English-speaking families.
Good instruction in science and social studies is dependent on curricula that build students’ knowledge carefully and systematically. But many school districts rely on teachers without subject-area expertise, or have teachers create their own curricula or piece together lessons from websites like teacherspayteachers.com. In science, this means that students learn random tidbits of knowledge over their elementary school education—frogs one year, butterflies the next, the solar system the following year, and maybe even frogs and butterflies again. The lessons might be engaging and interactive, but they lack conceptual integrity. Students rarely gain sufficient prerequisite knowledge to explore new topics in depth, and therefore lack a cohesive understanding of important scientific and historical phenomena.
There’s also the longstanding and baseless assumption that history is a developmentally inappropriate topic for children below fourth or fifth grade, and that students’ primary interest will be in themselves and their own immediate experience. The standard elementary school social studies sequence follows a series of “expanding environments” that reflect this assumption: all about me, my family, my neighborhood or community, and so on. Alternatively, some social studies curricula take such a broad approach to “themes” that they become insipid and meaningless. Both approaches deprive children of the opportunity to expand their knowledge of the world and the vocabulary that goes with it.
High-quality programs like Core Knowledge History and Geography avoid these common problems.
Akerson, V. and Donnelly, L. (2010). Teaching Nature of Science to K-2 Students: What Understandings Can They Attain? International Journal of Science Education, 32(1), 1-28.
Akerson, V., Buck, G., Donnelly, L, Nargund-Joshi, V. and Weiland, I. (2011). The Importance of Teaching and Learning Nature of Science in the Early Childhood Years. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 20, 537–549.
Cabell, S. and Hwang, H. (2020). Building Content Knowledge to Boost Comprehension in the Primary Grades. Reading Research Quarterly, 55(1), 99-107.
- Discusses why content-rich instruction supports language and content acquisition and improves linguistic and reading comprehension. Also shares preliminary results of an IES study of the Core Knowledge Language Arts curriculum.
Common Core. (2009). “Why We’re Behind: What Top Nations Teach Their Student but We Don’t.” Washington, D.C.
- Common Core, the precursor to Great Minds, found that commonalities among the diverse countries with the highest PISA scores: education systems that emphasize content knowledge in academic standards, curriculum, and assessments.
Council of Chief State School Officers (2018). “The Marginalization of Social Studies.” Washington, D.C.
Curran, F., and Kitchin, J. (2019). Early Elementary Science Instruction: Does More Time on Science or Science Topics/Skills Predict Science Achievement in the Early Grades? AERA Open, 5(3), 1-18.
- More time spent on science topics correlates with higher science achievement in elementary school. This speaks to an idea that should not be taken for granted: spending more time on science leads to higher levels of achievement.
Elleman, A., Lindo, E., Morphy, P. and Compton, D. (2009). The Impact of Vocabulary Instruction on Passage-Level Comprehension of School-Age Children: A Meta-Analysis. Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness, 2(1), 1-44.
- Teaching explicit vocabulary, which is a major component of history and science curricula, has a positive impact on reading comprehension.
Fincher-Kiefer, R. (1992). The Role of Prior Knowledge in Inferential Processing. Journal of Research in Reading. 15(1), 12-27.
- Students with background knowledge of a particular subject are better equipped to figure out the meaning of unknown words connected to a corresponding domain of knowledge. This suggests that giving students a broad knowledge base in elementary school will better prepare them to learn new vocabulary in middle and high school.
Kaefer, T., Neuman, S., and Pinkham, A. (2015). Pre-existing background knowledge influences socioeconomic differences in preschoolers’ word learning and comprehension. Reading Psychology, 36(3), 203-231.
- Students from lower-income backgrounds perform equally well on measures of reading comprehension when explicitly taught relevant background knowledge. This indicates background knowledge’s significant role in reading comprehension and points to its potential to reduce the achievement gap.
Kuhn, D. and Pearsall, S. (2000). Developmental Origins of Scientific Thinking, Journal of Cognition and Development. 1(1), 113-129.
McNamara, D., Kintsch, E., Songer, N., and Kintsch, W. (1996). Are good texts always better? Interactions of text coherence, background knowledge, and levels of understanding in learning from text. Cognition and Instruction, 14(1), 1–43.
- Strong background knowledge helps students comprehend texts that are not well written or coherent. This suggests that the type of background knowledge built by history and science lessons is more decisive in reading comprehension than even high-quality texts.
Metz, K. (2008). Narrowing the Gulf between the Practices of Science and the Elementary School Science Classroom. The Elementary School Journal, 109(2), 138-161.
National Research Council. 2007. “Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K-8.” Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press.
Recht, D. and Leslie, L. (1988). Effect of prior knowledge on good and poor readers' memory of text. Journal of Educational Psychology, 80(1), 16–20.
Tyner, A. and Kabourek, S. (2020). “Social Studies Instruction and Reading Comprehension: Evidence from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study.” Thomas B. Fordham Institute, Washington, D.C.
- A massive federal database of how much instructional time is spent on different subjects reveals that more time on social studies, not English language arts, is associated with improved reading ability.
Tyner, A. and Kabourek, S. (2021). “(How Social Studies Improves Elementary Literacy” Social Education, National Council for the Social Studies, Silver Spring, MD.
Willingham, D. (2006). “How Knowledge Helps.” American Educator, 30(1).
Willingham, D. (2007). “Critical Thinking: Why Is It So Hard to Teach?” American Educator, 31 (3).
Willingham, D. (2008). “What Is Developmentally Appropriate Practice?” American Educator, 32(3).