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Social Studies to the Rescue?

Some time around third grade comes a general classroom shift from "learn to read" to "read to learn."

For many students, this is a painful shift. In the history of education, solitary, silent reading has not been a successful or privileged method of imparting information to young students. Modern educators, however, trying to leverage the high literacy levels achieved in early primary grades, have come to rely upon solitary, silent reading as a mainstay for later primary and middle grade instruction.

The tension between a teacher's desire to instruct-by-assigning-reading and the average student's struggle to absorb knowledge in that medium has resulted in the existence of a whole field of reading comprehension instruction for grades 3-8. "Language Arts" has ballooned into a rather intensive and comprehensive area of instruction, one that often dominates the school schedule.

Standardized tests, too, have acknowledged the continued need to "learn to read" by attempting to disaggregate reading skills and then measure student progress. These tests do not paint an encouraging picture of the typical American student's skills or progress. Educators have usually responded to the lack of success by doubling down on the direct approach to better "reading" skills in these grades, despite a lack of evidence that spending more time on Language Arts (often abbreviated ELA) is an effective intervention.

Coaching students to identify the main idea, tone, mood, biases, and assumptions in all genres of texts is a critical task for teachers. Classical educators often do so in rhetoric classes that go beyond the standard Language Arts curriculum. Classical educators take great care to choose texts not only with respect to the beauty of language but with regard for the goodness and truth of the content.

None of this is enough. More class time on language arts or its sophisticated older sister will not avail the student who does not know the lay of the land.

If you have never read about the famous baseball study, click here. If you know about it but it has been a while, here is a refresher: A particular reading test turned the tables on high-achieving students who consistently trounced their low-achieving classmates in reading comprehension tests. The low-achieving kids, who knew all about baseball, were suddenly testing at the highest levels, while the high-achievers who never played baseball found the text inscrutable and a little, well, inside baseball.

Learning the facts about the world is a necessary but neglected key to unlocking texts for students. Put another way, reading comprehension is unattainable if you do not know enough about the world around you. Imagine the men in Plato's cave, or imagine Rapunzel reading about caves in a book with no pictures. An SAT snafu in the early 1980's prompted outrage when a question presumed all test-takers knew, given no context, what a regatta was.

If schools want to improve reading ability (and thereby increase those test scores by which so many people and institutions like to measure classical schools), they should spend more time on Social Studies. Excellent literature can help, too, of course, but social studies (well-taught) includes everything in the rich tapestry of human civilization. Good Social Studies instruction is much more interesting to most students than the stand-alone passages written for the express purpose of teaching reading comprehension skills.

Note: Many classical educators look askance at the term "Social Studies," preferring instead to speak of history, civics, economics, sociology, geography, and current events. For the moment, let it not trouble the noble that this essay makes use of the catch-all term.

Scholars Adam Tyner and Sarah Kabourek at the Fordham Institute have published a nice summary of their findings on this topic, from which much of this article was drawn.

Here are some excerpts from the Fordham Institute article:

"The dominant view is that the way to improve America’s abysmal elementary reading outcomes is for schools to spend more time on literacy instruction. Yet a small army of cognitive psychologists, analysts, and educators has long cast doubt on the view that reading is a discrete skill that can be mastered independently from acquiring knowledge. To these contrarians, a focus on academic content—not generalized reading skills and strategies—will equip students with the background knowledge they need to comprehend all sorts of texts and make them truly literate."

"Though surely well intended, at the margin, spending extra time on teaching ELA may not yield much in the way of reading improvement. Instead, elementary schools should consider making more room for high-quality instruction in history, civics, geography, and the other knowledge-rich—and engaging—subjects that comprise social studies."

Social Studies could be the literacy hero the children of the pandemic slide need. If teachers can convince themselves that ELA time could be better directed toward more time on Social Studies, students could gain wisdom about the mistakes and successes of previous generations, see trends that still affect them today, and maybe even learn a little about baseball.

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