Category Archives: Literacy

English as a Second Subject: How Social Studies Teachers Can Use Literacy Techniques to Support Student Achievement

By Sean McGrath January 28th, 2014 10:00 AM

In social studies, we have a tendency to focus on content: who did what, when, where, and why? We’re obsessed with facts, order, and chronology, and we want our students to be, too. I once received a paper from an eighth-grade student who had written the following sentence in response to the prompt, “Why did the Pilgrims sign the Mayflower Compact?” (all spelling errors are from the paper): “The Pligrum singed the mayflower compak to fre th salves from slavary.”

I approached the student after class, because I found it so difficult to believe that a student who flourished with brilliant verbal responses in class could struggle so much when writing a response to this basic question.

“Hey Malia*, can I talk to you for a minute?”

“Sure, Mr. McGrath, what’s up?”

“Hey, can I ask you a question about the Pilgrims?”


“Why did they sign the Mayflower Compact in 1620?”

“Because they needed to create their own laws because they weren’t part of any colony in North America so they had to make their own laws.” I nodded in ascension, and then dramatically, perhaps overly so, I produced her assignment and showed it to her.

“So why did you write something else?” Malia was quiet for a bit and then laughed.

“I don’t know, Mr. McGrath. That ain’t the answer though.”

It was this interaction with Malia that completely changed my belief about the role of social studies in education. Yes, dates, facts, and times are important, but being able to analyze that importance is even more critical. It’s why I’ve absorbed every piece of information provided to me at the quarterly district-wide professional development days. As the district turns its focus on literacy, it’s gaining importance in social studies. As a result, social studies teachers have been coached on how to construct lessons to both support our students’ reading goals and reach our curricular objectives. We’ve been taught how to lead activities called close reads, a careful and sustained interpretation of a complex, above grade-level text. At the school level, we have weekly staff meetings focused on the integration of literacy and social studies (or literacy and science) in the middle school curriculum.

Since implementing literacy-focused activities within my classroom, I’ve noticed that my students are better able to express themselves through writing. Every morning – or just about – when my students walk into my classroom, there is a Do Now on the board that challenges them to manipulate the English language to form complex sentences. One of my favorites is “But, Because, So,” where I give my students the prompt: “The Pilgrims signed the Mayflower Compact” (to go along with Malia’s story from earlier) and students have to answer the statement in three different ways using the words but, because, and so. This gives them a better grasp on these transition words and allows them to reflect on their own reasons for specifically choosing one word over another.

The most recent staff meeting was about sentence structures, and excitedly, I altered my planned Do Now for that day to incorporate this new focus area. In this activity, called “When, Where, and Why?” (notice a theme?), I provided my students with a short stem: [noun] [verb]. In my example, I listed “George Washington” as the noun and “rides” as the verb. Students then came up with the When, Where, and Why parts of the sentence (When did George Washington ride? Where did he ride? And so on). After class, I had students turn in their warm-up sheets so that I could gauge my effectiveness in explaining the concept to the class. For the most part, I received some pretty mundane and factually accurate sentences. But then, I saw the holy grail of sentences: “In 1372, George Washington rode to Australia because he was hungry.” Anachronistically absurd but structurally sound, this student received an A.

We’ve been bombarded with sentence starters, graphic organizers, signal words, writing activity books, and a host of other materials that seem to eschew our content for that of the English teacher’s. Indeed, many history purists decry this marginalization of social studies. They seem to insist that the continued prioritization of reading and math over social studies and science is having a detrimental effect on our student population. While I would prefer for my subject to be seen as the paragon of education that I believe it to be, I also know that if our students can’t read, they certainly can’t appreciate the nuanced philosophies of Thomas Jefferson.

Sean McGrath is a social studies teacher at Stuart Hobson Middle School and a member of the Chancellor’s Teachers Cabinet.