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Social Studies close reading vs. ELA close reading. It’s both/and not either/or

Okay. I’m going to have to be careful here. But I’m gonna start with this:

“Social studies teachers should not worry about having kids do ELA close reading activities. Social studies teachers should not be asked to do ELA literacy activities.”

Let the throwing of things and gnashing of teeth begin.

Because I’ve seen it happen. Because when I say that in front of people, they get cranky. The Common Core says we need to integrate the language arts / literacy standards into our social studies instruction. And when I say we shouldn’t do the bidding of the English department just so that they can check off their Common Core standards responsibilities, it’s like I’m saying we should be drowning puppies.

So before things get too out of hand, let me explain.

I am not saying that social studies teachers shouldn’t teach reading and writing skills. I am not saying that social studies teachers are excused from training kids to communicate effectively.

What I do want social studies teachers and ELA teachers to understand is that reading, writing, and communicating in the social studies should look different than reading, writing, and communicating in ELA. So when we ask a kid in a history class to read a primary source document, he should be asking different kinds of questions than if he were reading a piece of narrative text in his English class. He needs to interrogate the text differently because the task is different.

What I do want both social studies teachers and ELA teachers to understand is how important both of those jobs are to the bigger picture. ELA teachers need to give kids stuff such as the skill to look for words with double meaning, to identify sentences that establish the theme, and phrases that develop understanding of character. That’s huge.

But we shouldn’t be asking social studies teachers to train kids to do those same sorts of things. In social studies classes, we need to help kids develop discipline-specific skills so that they begin to think historically, to solve historical problems, to see cause and effect, notice change over time, identify bias, and relationships between people, place, and time. The task is different. So we need to ask different questions. To look for different things.

So when I say that social studies teachers “should not be asked to do ELA literacy activities” I am not saying that social studies teachers don’t have to teach reading, writing, and communicating. I’m saying that it’s gonna look different because the setting is different.

I’ve had the opportunity to talk with and read stuff by Bruce Lesh, of Why Won’t You Just Tell Us the Answer fame, and Sam Wineburg, the guy who wrote Thinking Historically and Other Unnatural Acts and Reading Like a Historian. Both have some ideas that can help ELA and social studies folks begin to see the difference.

The Common Core very specifically asks history / government students to read critically, examine documents, ask questions of those documents, use a variety of documents, and to develop literacy skills that let them read effectively

Bruce suggests that good history teachers have been doing this sort of “common core” stuff forever. He structures all of this using three words that he trains his kids to remember:

  • Text
    What is visible? What’s obvious? What information is provided by the text?
  • Context
    What else was going on during this period? How does this help explain the document?
  • Subtext
    What is happening between the lines? What’s taking place beneath the surface that is not apparent?

What does that look like in practice? What social studies specific questions should kids be asking?

  • Text
    Who is the author? When was the document created? What medium does the author use? Who is the audience? Where was the document created or shared?
  • Context
    What specific / general events happened during the same period? What was the feeling of people at the time? Both specific to the place / time the document was created and in a general sense around the country / area? Kids should think in terms of  economics, politics, geography, and culture.
  • Subtext
    What might be the author’s purpose and intent? What might have been the response of people who encountered the document?

Sam suggests the same sort of things when he describes the different skills that social studies students need to practice:

  • Sourcing
    Think about a document’s author and its creation.
  • Contextualizing
    Situate the document and its events in time and place
  • Close reading
    Carefully consider what the document says and the language used to say it.
  • Using Background Knowledge
    Use historical information and knowledge to read and understand the document.
  • Reading the Silences
    Identify what has been left out or is missing from the document by asking questions of its account.
  • Corroborating
    Ask questions about important details across multiple sources to determine points of agreement and disagreement.

(Wineburg’s awesome Stanford History Education Group maintains a sweet Reading Like a History website that you can use to support this type of questioning.)

So while kids do need to know how to identify text features and use contextual clues to understand new vocabulary, the kinds of discipline specific reading skills suggested by Bruce and Sam are the kinds of questions that we need to be using in social studies classrooms.

And here’s the cool part. When both ELA and social studies teachers focus on discipline specific skills, the kid walks away with the ability to apply those skills in appropriate ways when exposed to different problems and evidence.

It’s both / and. Not either / or.

So if and when ELA folks drop by your social studies team meeting and demand that you teach more ELA skills, you can politely say that you’ve got it covered. If you need to, print out and hand them the following list of Literacy Expectations that all K-12 social studies teachers use in the state of Kansas:

Effective social studies instruction promotes:

reading a variety of primary and secondary sources so that it is possible to

  • determine the meaning and main idea, identifying and analyzing evidence, relationships, and supporting details.
  • interpret words, discipline-specific phrases, analyze text structure, identify purpose, bias, and point of view.
  • evaluate an argument or claim citing evidence in support of, or against, the argument or claim.
  • analyze two or more texts on the same topic drawing conclusions about the similarities and differences.
  • comprehend complex and difficult text within the discipline.
  • identify and evaluate critical information communicated in multiple forms of media.

writing clearly and coherently:

  • to support a claim, or make an argument using evidence, logic, and reasoning.
  • to inform or explain an event, relationship, position, or opinion.
  • to tell a story.
  • so that each example is open to revision and rewriting.
  • by applying the appropriate technologies for the purpose and audience.
  • by gathering multiple sources of information and integrating them into short and long term 

communicating effectively by:

  • preparing and collaborating with diverse partners in conversations about topics within the discipline.
  • evaluating information from various formats.
  • presenting information and evaluation to others in a manner that is not totally written text.
  • gathering and organizing information and evidence.
  • designing and delivering a presentation on a specific topic.
  • using multiple modes of communication and adjusting presentations to meet the requirements of the task or audience.

You, and your ELA colleagues, also need to be familiar with the National Council for the Social Studies very useful C3 Framework that outlines very specific reading, writing, and communicating standards broken out by grade level bands.

And I will be the first to admit that I may be way off base here. I will also admit that there is a lot of overlap between SS and ELA literacy activities. But what I’ve seen, and want us to avoid, is a social studies classroom with no social studies questions being asked because the Common Core is “demanding” a focus on ELA.

Your thoughts? Should we have this sort of separation of powers between the two disciplines?

10 Comments Post a comment
  1. Having taught both subjects, I applaud your comments. Each discipline has specific goals for understanding and explaining its subject matter. While neither should compromise quality of written products, neither should surrender its distinctive agenda. Thank you.

    June 9, 2014
  2. suzy demboyz #

    I think they get cranky because no one is asking you to do ELA close reading activities. The whole issue is simply that the non-fiction readings suggested by Common Core can be done via social studies…in the fashion they see fit as you so eloquently detail.
    ELA teachers feared that adding non-fiction to their curriculum would mean they couldn’t fit in classics like Grapes of Wrath…I kind of believe you are making an issue where there was none. But great explanation on the different skills needed.

    June 11, 2014
    • glennw #


      I don’t disagree with what you’re saying at all. In theory, it works well. And I’ve seen lots of places where ELA / SS departments are working well together to support one another. But I’ve also seen places where there is a lack of understanding about the different skill sets in each of the disciplines. This can often lead to mandates from admin that SS will read this and use these strategies so that the district can say certain standards are being met. This can put SS folks in a position where SS skills are seen as not as important.

      The push in SS is to focus on process and the CCSS is a great way to support that. There just needs to be more conversation about what that looks like. And your comments are a great example of what that conversation can look like.



      June 11, 2014
    • glennw #

      Science and Social Studies are disappearing:

      Social Studies grade card

      June 11, 2014
  3. Reblogged this on Inspired by History and commented:
    An excellent article (as always) by History Tech regarding the teaching standards shift in Social Studies. I experienced this first hand as I entered into my public school teaching position this past spring semester. I’m still waiting on Florida to figure out that English and Social Studies are not the same subjects.

    June 13, 2014
    • glennw #


      Thanks for the comment! I know ELA and SS both want the best for our kids – it’s just sometimes hard to us all on the same page about what that can look like. Good luck there in Florida!


      June 14, 2014
  4. To me, the key is to model critical and creative thinking. We are not using Common Core effectively if we are sticking with a prescribed set of questions, no matter what subject matter is being taught. Model your questions and thoughts out loud. Model your thinking until they feed back their own thoughts and questions. All these examples help. Thanks for the links! We are all on the same team.

    October 12, 2017
    • glennw #

      Yes! We’re all working to create critical thinkers. And 100% agree with thinking/modeling out loud is so key.

      Thanks for comment!


      October 12, 2017

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