Supporting Struggling Readers in Social Studies
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Supporting Struggling Readers in the Social Studies Classroom

Dr. Brian Furgione
Dec 7, 2023

Let’s be honest…teaching social studies today is hard! Teachers across the nation are faced with diminishing classroom minutes, navigating large curricular shifts, and trying to accommodate the 65% of students who are not reading at a proficient level

The social studies classroom is a unique space where historical narratives meet current events, and where students build an understanding of how we got to now. It provides a space for students to contextualize events, corroborate evidence, explore causality, and develop their historical thinking skills. These skills aren’t built in a vacuum. They’re tightly bound and grounded in literacy. If a student is struggling to read, those tasks can feel impossible. 

If we want all students to engage with the complexities and nuances of social studies content, supporting struggling readers—students reading below grade level—becomes an even more essential charge in the classroom.

But there’s good news: we can teach grade-level social studies content and support struggling readers at the same time. In this blog we’ll cover how social studies materials can support all students, regardless of reading level, in the classroom through:

  • Multimedia and visual primary sources to build background knowledge

  • Scaffolded resources to make readings more accessible

  • Content designed to prime the pump for inquiry

Multimedia and visual primary sources to build background knowledge

Have you ever picked up an old photograph (like the one featured 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 multimedia and visual primary sources to engage a struggling reader allows those students the opportunity to build background knowledge and understanding without reading a word of text. Sources like videos, 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. 

“For bellwork, I always use some kind of visual primary source, usually a political cartoon or an old primary source photograph; something that even my lowest level students or someone who has no prior knowledge could have something to say and connect with.”

- 7th Grade Civics Teacher

Newsela Social Studies has an extensive library of visual primary sources and explainer videos on social studies topics to kickstart learning for all reading levels. Using non-linguistic sources can also serve as a great primer for students before reading complex content, like a text-based primary source that needs context to analyze. (Did you know? Text-based primary sources are leveled on Newsela!)

Scaffolded resources to make readings more accessible

Once students have preliminary background knowledge, it’s time to introduce some texts into the social studies lesson. This is where the importance of differentiated materials comes in; teachers need a way to provide content that all students can access, regardless of their reading level. They also need a way to progress readers’ skills as they learn. For below-grade level readers, text sets present a great opportunity to provide a road-map for growth—supporting students in building background knowledge and developing reading skills as they gradually transition from one text to the next. 

Rolling text sets include content that increases in complexity and word count. They’re 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). These allow students to start small and build to the largest, most complex text—with each text serving as a building block of content along the way. 

Educators can easily build a rolling text set in Newsela Social Studies using a variety of pre-curated text sets and Newsela’s scaffolding tools. Every Newsela article–including our primary sources–is available at five reading levels to meet students where they are. Articles are equipped with read-aloud mode and annotations to further support struggling readers. Each article also includes activities to practice skills and gauge understanding, allowing teachers to check in with students as they go.

These rolling text sets will give your students the opportunity to engage with multiple texts and build background knowledge in the process. 

Content designed to prime the pump for inquiry

At the core of inquiry is an investigation—students asking questions and seeking information. While it can feel time-intensive, inquiry provides 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 the lesson. A good compelling question is intellectually rigorous, but also student-friendly. It opens the door for examination, allowing students to view a topic from a broader, open-ended lens. 

Some compelling questions include: What does it mean to be equal? Does it matter how leaders are chosen? Can ideological wars be more dangerous than physical wars?

With a powerful and engaging compelling question, students are provided with a reason to explore the resources provided. Many educators worry that inquiry is not accessible to their struggling readers—but with the right questions and scaffolded materials, it can be. For struggling 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!

Newsela has a wide variety of resources to engage students in inquiry. With an ever-evolving repository of resources, Newsela Social Studies provides pre-curated inquiry-based learning units that teachers can adapt and enact with their students, developed in collaboration with C3 Teachers. With embedded scaffolds, the ability to adjust reading levels, engaging activities, and authentic and relevant content, students will feel supported as they interact with text centered on the complex and nuanced elements of a compelling question.

Educators can also use activities, powered by Formative, attached to every Newsela article to introduce the compelling question and engage students in inquiry within the texts. Choose from a variety of activity types—even audio and video responses—to keep students engaged and make the lesson accessible.

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. 

Want more information?

Learn more about how Newsela Social Studies helps all students access grade-level social studies concepts with diverse, relevant, and timely stories and past-to-present connections.

*This blog post was originally published on September 7, 2022 and has been updated to reflect new updates to Newsela Social Studies

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