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Less Classroom Time on ELA, More on Social Studies

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

The article: “Social Studies Instruction and Reading Comprehension” by Adam Tyner and Sarah Kabourek in a Thomas B. Fordham Institute paper, September 24, 2020; Tyner can be reached at

In this Thomas B. Fordham Institute paper, Adam Tyner and Sarah Kabourek argue that background knowledge is more important than generic reading skills (e.g., identifying the main idea) in developing students’ reading comprehension.

An example: students might be able to accurately read the words Berlin Wall, but wouldn’t understand the true meaning if they didn’t know that Berlin, the capital of Germany during World War II, was divided by the Western Allies and the Soviet Union, and that a wall kept East Germans from escaping the lack of economic opportunity and freedom on the Communist side.

“There’s little doubt,” say Tyner and Kabourek, “that background knowledge is critical for a reader to make sense of a given text.” The study takes it a step further, quoting Daniel Willingham (University of Virginia): “Reading tests are really knowledge tests in disguise.”

These research-based insights about background knowledge have been around for decades, say Tyner and Kabourek, but have not been put into practice in many U.S. classrooms that are using skills-based, knowledge-weak instruction.

Below are the key findings of the Fordham study, which used PreK-5 data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study:

-   Elementary students in the U.S. spend much more time on English language arts than any other subject, but this massive ELA block isn’t paying dividends in reading proficiency.

-   Students from lower-SES homes, Hispanic students, and those attending traditional and charter public schools spend more time on ELA than students in private schools, which spend more time on content subjects.

-   Increasing classroom minutes on social studies is associated with improved reading proficiency, most likely because it provides rich background knowledge and fosters imagination and engagement.

-   The students who benefit the most from additional social studies time are girls and those from lower-income and/or non-English-speaking homes.

Tyner and Kabourek pivot from these findings to three recommendations for U.S. elementary schools:

• Devote more time to high-quality social studies instruction. They suggest that teachers spend at least 45 minutes a day on history, geography, current events, and civics, capturing the extra minutes currently spent on less-effective ELA activities (e.g., practicing generic comprehension skills). Increasing social studies learning will improve students’ reading proficiency by building knowledge and vocabulary that is applicable across subject areas. “Just as important,” say the authors, “additional social studies time will probably also help students develop the strong knowledge base needed for a successful transition to middle school.”

• Use the literacy block to build student knowledge. Curriculum packages like Wit and Wisdom and high-quality text sets integrate knowledge-building with reading, writing, speaking, and listening activities.

• Align end-of-year reading assessments with curriculum content. Many reading tests focus on abstract reading skills, but the passages they choose nonetheless privilege the background knowledge some students happen to have. The problem is that tests’ content could come from anywhere, rather than from the topics in social studies, science, or literature students have been studying that year. Tests results therefore don’t reflect (or reward) the work that teachers and students are doing each year.

The authors quote E.D. Hirsch and Robert Pondiscio on the need for domain-specific language arts curriculum. “Rather than idle away precious hours on trivial stories or randomly chosen nonfiction,” say Hirsch and Pondiscio, “reading, writing, and listening instruction would be built into the study of ancient civilizations in first grade, for example, Greek mythology in second, or the human body in third.” End-of-year reading tests would focus on each year’s content, and teachers would “teach to the test” in the best sense, preparing students with the knowledge and skills to be successful in those rigorous assessments of content and skills – and prepared for success in the next grade. Louisiana is piloting this idea, and the results will be scrutinized in the years ahead.


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