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Content…Check. Literacy Skills…Check! Supporting Striving Readers in the Social Studies Classroom

Dr. Brian Furgione
Sep 7, 2022

Let’s be honest…teaching social studies in 2022 is hard! Teachers across the nation are faced with diminishing classroom minutes, navigating large curricular shifts, and the influence of political and social issues in the classroom. The need for quality social studies instruction is at an all-time high. On top of all this,  65% of students are not reading at a proficient level. Having spent over a decade in the classroom teaching and researching social studies, I know firsthand how challenging it is to account for all these issues while maintaining a classroom environment that facilitates powerful and meaningful social studies instruction. 

But there’s good news: we can teach social studies content and support our striving readers at the same time. In this blog we’ll cover strategies and quick tips you can integrate into your planning, right now, to support your students in the social studies classroom.

  • Use Primary Sources to Build Background Knowledge

  • Utilize Text Sets to Build Content Knowledge and Make Readings More Accessible

  • Inquiry: Prime the Pump with Compelling Questions

The social studies classroom is a unique space where current events meet historical narratives, and where students build an understanding of how we got to now. The social studies classroom provides a space for students to contextualize events, corroborate evidence, explore causality, and develop their historical thinking skills. These skills aren’t conducted in a vacuum, they are intricately threaded together with an interdisciplinary lens grounded in literacy. If a student is struggling to read, all of those tasks become more demanding. If we want all students to engage with the complexities and nuances of social studies content, supporting our striving readers - or students reading below grade level - becomes an even more essential charge in the classroom.

Use Primary Sources to Build Background Knowledge

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Have you ever picked up an old photograph (like the one above) and immediately began to question “what is this picture all about?” You may wonder who took the picture and think about why the photo was taken in the first place. In your attempt to understand the image, you are engaging in small lines of inquiry that help contextualize the image and build your background knowledge! This is how we want students to approach sources and work to construct background knowledge within the discipline. 


Using visual primary sources to engage a striving reader allows those students the opportunity to build background knowledge and understanding without reading a word of text. Sources like photographs, cartoons, posters, and maps provide a space for students to explore multiple perspectives and articulate their findings and understandings based on the visuals provided. This process also supports students by providing pre-text exposure to academic vocabulary through discussions of the visual representations, allowing students to construct meaning and provide context for key academic terms. Using non-linguistic sources can also serve as a great primer for students before reading a high-complexity text, a leveled article on Newsela, or a text-based primary source that needs context to analyze.

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Use Primary and Visual Sources to Build Background Knowledge 

  • Use a primary source, like a map or photo, as a preview to a leveled Newsela article or more complex text aligned to your standards

  • Use a visual source to prompt students to think about a topic and build cognitive connections to essential vocabulary terms that can be added to a word wall or vocabulary list

  • Scaffold the analysis process using a graphic organizer that can be tied to concepts and themes from a more complex primary source, article, or text-set

Utilize Text Sets to Build Content Knowledge and Make Readings More Accessible

Text sets on Newsela are a collection of curated texts that are thematically or conceptually organized. For below-grade level readers, text sets present a great opportunity to provide a road-map for growth – supporting students in building content knowledge and developing reading skills as they gradually transition from one text to the next. 

Rolling Tex Sets

A rolling text set provides students multiple access points to content, creating a collection of articles (5-10) that increase in complexity and word count. This allows students to start small, so to speak, and build to the largest, most complex text - with each text serving as a building block of content along the way. Teaching social studies thematically, you can create a rolling text set centered on an overarching theme where each text helps students build the requisite knowledge to understand the nuance and details of the content (think the evolution of voting rights or exploring governmental powers). With a variety of pre-curated text sets and the ability to level articles on Newsela, you can create a rolling text set that piques student interest from start to finish. Layer in some think-alouds and scaffolding, and your students have the opportunity to engage with multiple texts and build content knowledge in the process. 

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Use Text Sets to Build Content Knowledge

  • Adapt a pre-curated text set from Newsela to create a rolling text set

  • Create a rolling text set that allows you to gradually increase the complexity of your student's readings - building content knowledge and supporting your below-grade level readers

  • Adjust the reading level of Newsela content to scaffold a text set that really engages students in challenging, yet relevant content

  • Collaborate with an ELA teacher to create a cross-curricular text set that aligns with the needs of both subjects 

Inquiry: Prime the Pump with Compelling Questions

At the core of inquiry is an investigation - students asking questions and seeking information. While it can feel time-intensive, inquiry-based practices provide students with the autonomy and space to explore content while they construct meaning. Using a combination of engaging sources and a compelling question, we can prime the pump, so to speak, and leverage students' natural curiosity to draw them into disciplinary content. A good compelling question is intellectually rigorous, but also student-friendly. A compelling question opens the door for examination, allowing students to view a topic from a broader, open-ended lens. 

Some compelling questions include:

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With a powerful and engaging compelling question, students are provided with a reason to explore the resources provided. For striving readers, a compelling question can provide the hook that draws them in. They aren’t just reading, they are investigating and searching. And while we can’t force kids to read… we can provide them with the most conducive environment to want to do so!

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Newsela has a wide variety of resources that can support your efforts to engage students in inquiry-based practices. With an ever-evolving repository of resources, Newsela Social Studies provides pre-curated inquiry-based learning units that you can adapt and enact with your students. With embedded scaffolds, the ability to adjust reading levels, and authentic and relevant content, students will feel supported as they engage with text centered on the complex and nuanced elements of a compelling question. 

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Prime the Pump with Inquiry and Compelling Questions:

  • We can’t force kids to read…but a compelling question is a great way to invite them into the text by harnessing their natural curiosity

  • Start small. You don’t have to spend four weeks on an inquiry-based unit - start by using a compelling question and an engaging primary source as your Monday-morning bellringer to prep for text

  • Check out the C3 Inquiries on Newsela to find standards-aligned resources you can embed into your established curriculum

When scaffolded effectively, the social studies classroom can serve as a great environment to support below-grade level readers.  Students can engage with relevant content that helps them attain invaluable background knowledge and academic vocabulary - which in turn supports their ability to engage with text across the curriculum. 

What strategies and techniques do you leverage to engage your readers in social studies? Get in touch via Facebook or Twitter.


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