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Monday, January 8, 2018

Social Studies in Elementary Classrooms

I've had many elementary teachers tell me they'd love to teach more Montana history (or social studies generally) but that their principal insisted the time was better spent on literacy instruction. If this is you, I have an article for you to share with your principal: "How to Get Your Mind to Read," by University of Virginia psychology professor Daniel Willingham.

In a nutshell, Willingham argues that reading comprehension requires broad vocabulary and factual knowledge. Among his examples is an experiment that gave third graders, "some identified by a reading test as good readers, some as poor," a passage about soccer. "The poor readers who knew a lot about soccer were three times as likely to make accurate inferences about the passage as the good readers who didn’t know much about the game." Another experiment "tested 11th graders’ general knowledge with questions from science (“pneumonia affects which part of the body?”), history (“which American president resigned because of the Watergate scandal?”), as well as the arts, civics, geography, athletics and literature. Scores on this general knowledge test were highly associated with reading test scores."

Based on the evidence, he argues that we're teaching reading all wrong. We shouldn't be teaching literacy in a vacuum because the "disproportionate emphasis on literacy" in elementary school "backfires in later grades, when children’s lack of subject matter knowledge impedes comprehension." Instead, he recommends using "high-information texts in early elementary grades." 

We've long taken that idea to heart! We've been slowly redesigning our hands-on history footlockers to include more literacy components, but all of them already have narratives written at about a fourth-grade level as part of the user guides. Most of our other elementary resources (including Neither Empty nor Unknown: Montana at the Time of Lewis and Clark Lesson PlanMontana’s Charlie RussellMontana’s State Flower: A Lesson in Civic EngagementMapping Montana, A to Z, Lesson PlanThe Art of Storytelling: Plains Indian Perspectives, and Montana Biographies) also contain literacy components. And they have CONTENT! 

Three cheers for research! And for content-rich curriculum! And especially for Montana history!

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