By Bill Waychunas – Sorry to burst your bubble, but the truth is that you are both. Say what you will about the added emphasis on reading in the Common Core or standardized testing and the narrowing of curriculum, but the fact of the matter is that more and more social studies teachers are finding themselves in positions where they are being asked to tread into the mostly unfamiliar territory of reading instruction. Personally, I have no problem with this transition, as I find it hard to believe that any student could be a successful history student without also being a successful reader.
Several years ago, I began teaching at a school that asked me to be more thoughtful and accountable for reading results than I ever had been before. I wasn’t completely unprepared for this mission, as it mirrored some of my personal views of teaching social studies, but I would be lying if I told you that I was ready to successfully “marry” social studies content with reading instruction. This is especially challenging when students come in with a wide range of reading abilities, as many students do when working in a low-income area.
After much struggle, frustration and eventually triumph, I’m happy to share with you my bits of advice for differentiating reading instruction in a social studies classroom.
- Independent Reading isn’t just for Elementary students!
You can force kids to read as much as you want in class, but since reading is all about practice, students won’t become good readers until they want to read. Creating this thirst for reading isn’t always easy to do but will serve students in the long run if they become life-long readers. This is why in my class the first 10 minutes is dedicated to independent reading where students get to choose a book, magazine, or newspaper on their own to get them hooked on reading. (Side note: This is also a great time to check students’ homework and take attendance!)
- Reading aloud to students also isn’t just for Elementary School either
Skip the carpet squares and gathering around the teacher…It turns out that high school students don’t like sitting on the floor. When I first started teaching, I thought that reading aloud to students was somehow “above me” as a secondary teacher. Truth be told, reading aloud to students is an excellent way for them to be exposed to new vocabulary words which they have never heard before (look into the 30 million word gap) and also can help with fluency, especially if you have student read it back to you or their partner. This is why I will oftentimes record myself or a guest celebrity teacher from my school’s staff, to read a passage that I play for students. In this way they can hear and see text while they annotate, and I can monitor and assess their understanding through informal observations. This brings me to my next revelation…
- Don’t assume that students know how to interact with texts!
As adult readers, we interact with the text naturally through practice. In our heads, we use two voices when we read: one voice recites the text, the other has a conversation with the text. That second voice may ask questions, make connections, self-monitor for comprehension, react with emotions, or alert us when we come across an unfamiliar word.
Students need explicit instruction and modeling of these strategies in order to “activate” that voice in their head that interacts with the text. Close readings are great for this, but in order to get kids to naturally do this as they read, the literature teacher at my school and I developed a sticky-note system where kids stop as they interact with a text and record it in a format that we taught them at the beginning of the year. Currently, we have our students interact with the text by asking questions, making connections, visualizing, describing their mood, determining meaning of difficult Vocabulary, identifying Important Information, and paraphrasing difficult portions of text with a strategy we call the “Help Button.”
- Give students lots of practice with texts “at their level!”
While textbooks form the backbone of most social studies classrooms, we need to be wary of their reading levels as they tend to be especially difficult to students due to their highly challenging, content-specific vocabulary. Putting a high-school level textbook in front of a high schooler who struggles with reading and has probably had a bad relationship with social studies classes in the past is a recipe for disaster. Not being able to read the content leads to frustration, which can lead to a number of usually negative reactions that will drive a teacher bananas.
Some teachers will criticize this as “dumbing down” the curriculum, but I would argue against that notion in two ways. One, your job as a teacher is to teach the students in front of you, not the lofty idea of where you think they should be. Two, does it really matter how your student learns your content? For example, if I give two students different passages about the causes of the Civil War, one at a 4th grade reading level and the other at a 9th grade level, is it more important that they understand the causes of the Civil War or that both of them get the same assignment? I think you know where I would stand on that issue.
Anyways, to ensure that you are reaching kids on their level, assess your students reading levels early in the year and adjust the materials that you give them based on their performance. Some good assessments to use include the Scholastic SRI which will give you Lexile scores, the STAR reading tests available through Renaissance Learning, or, if school budgets are a problem, some practice ACT reading exams. I like to group my students based on several of these data points and assign readings that are around each group’s reading level. I’ve found this to be especially helpful when assigning homework, as students need to be able to access materials on their own which then allows me to up the rigor (and support) for readings we do in class.
I’ve named my reading groups Red, White, and Blue, of course. While they all might be reading about symbolic free speech through case summaries of Tinker v. Des Moines, they all are getting readings at different degrees of difficulty. Achieving this requires either a plethora of widely ranging materials or the ability to modify to meet student reading needs.
Modifying for reading level is easier said than done, but there are some simple short cuts that you can take advantage of. The first step is to get yourself some different textbooks at different levels. U.S. history textbooks are available on Amazon for elementary school classrooms or middle school classrooms. If I’m teaching a certain topic, I may assign the chapter from the elementary textbook to my lowest readers, the high school book to my proficient or advanced students, and the middle school text to my students that are only slightly behind. The result: students that are getting reading practice at their level, content knowledge that can be used for more fun social studies activities such as projects, and a teacher that doesn’t have to deal with students that are frustrated by the text.
For current events, I use an amazing website (newsela.com) which takes newspaper articles and modifies them for you at different Lexile levels. The readings are even searchable and many come with pre-made quizzes. Best of all, the site is FREE!
For texts that you find online or have in a word document, modifying text yourself is easy to do. To check reading levels of texts which I can copy/paste, I like to use the website readability-score.com. There are plenty of other free websites out there and a quick google search for “free text analyzer” should point you in the right direction. When modifying text down to student reading levels, keep a few key points in mind. Shorten the sentences. Simplify the vocabulary words. Add text features like pictures, headings, subheadings, and vocabulary definitions in captions. When you’ve finished, paste the modified text into the text analyzer and see if you’ve gotten to the level where your students will be able to access and understand.
Congrats! You’ve just passed Part One of how to be both a social studies and reading teacher. I hope you will join me next month as I discuss further topics such as vocabulary instruction, in-class reading methods, creating book nerds, blending content and reading in assessments, and finding ways to engage students with text.