Why your child needs social studies
It might be simpler than we think.
How do we build a generation of strong readers and citizens who are active participants in our democracy? It might be simpler than we think.
For years, American public schools have cut back social studies instruction in favor of longer blocks of reading and math.
This is especially true in elementary schools, where a focus on reading means leveled books and a collection of “comprehension” skills like finding the main idea or making inferences.
You know the books I’m talking about: the ones without a plot, with simple sentences and little meaning. Maybe you’ve purchased some for your child, thinking it’s the best way to help them learn to read.
In school, your child may be given a reading passage about Rosa Parks one day, and ice hockey the next. The content of the passage doesn’t matter, because they’re supposed to be looking for text evidence. It’s not the words they need to worry about, it’s the skills.
If this seems confusing to you, imagine what it’s like being 9-years-old and trying to dissect an article about ice hockey when you live in Atlanta, Georgia, and have never even visited an ice rink.
There is a better way to teach reading: give kids the knowledge they need to understand what they’re reading. And the best way to build knowledge is to prioritize social studies instruction, in schools and at home. Here are some reasons why social studies make strong readers and involved citizens:
1. Social studies build background knowledge.
There are two major components to learning to read: phonics (the sounds and patterns of letters and words) and comprehension (understanding what you are reading.) For many years now, American schools have focused on comprehension skills, like making connections or visualizing.
These skills are important but are difficult to use if you don’t understand what you are reading.
Focusing on comprehension skills without concern for what kids are reading leads to confusion and poor understanding. Kids need background knowledge to understand what they’re reading. And social studies is a great way to build background knowledge.
History, geography, and cultural studies all offer knowledge that kids can apply to their reading. And elementary school is the time to start.
Imagine getting to your high school history class and trying to read about the Civil War in your textbook. If you’ve studied it before, you’ll recognize words like “confederacy,” “union,” “cavalry,” and “secession.”
But if you’ve never been exposed to it before, reading a high-school level textbook is going to be difficult.
By teaching social studies early on, we can set kids up to be better readers later.
2. Social studies are exciting.
Want to get kids excited about reading? Give them a good story.
History IS stories. And it’s even better than fiction because it’s true. Kids connect to history because storytelling is the best way to learn. That’s why humans have been sharing stories for thousands of years.
You might think teaching fourth graders about the American Revolution would be boring. Think again: it’s the story of a group of people fighting for their freedom from an oppressive government. The big strong British army sailed across the ocean, and the ragtag Americans WON, and a new country was born. How’s that for an exciting story?
History is full of underdog stories. It’s full of surprises. It’s full of inventions and upheaval and new ideas. Give kids a chance to connect with those stories, and you’ll find they’re much more interested than you expected.
3. Social studies allow for complex, in-depth learning.
As it stands today, reading is taught by giving kids books on their “reading level.” In elementary school, these books are usually fiction or very basic nonfiction. Because of the limitations of their reading ability, kids aren’t learning about complex subjects when they read independently. They’re never exposed to the vocabulary and concepts necessary to build background knowledge.
Teachers call this transition “learning to read” so they can “read to learn.” But we don’t have to wait until they’re in middle school to teach them complex ideas. We can do that right away, in elementary school.
Kids learn best by listening. This is even true through middle school. Because they are still developing their reading skills, if we want to expose them to history, geography, and different cultures, we have to read it to them.
Children CAN understand complex topics. They can have discussions about the tactics civil rights leaders used to make change for Black Americans. They can understand how the Ancient Greeks developed a system of democracy that we still use today. They can study the kingdoms of Africa. They just can’t do it alone.
Read to them. Talk to them about what you are reading. Expose them to history, geography, and culture, and watch them blossom.
4. Social studies build productive citizens.
All across America, people are protesting systemic racism and police brutality, People are grappling with America’s legacy of racism by removing statues honoring Confederate soldiers and renaming streets and buildings memorializing slaveowners.
These people are standing up for what’s right not to erase history, but because they understand history. They also know it’s their right to gather and protest in the streets because they understand American government.
If we want our children to grow up and use their voices to stand up for what’s right, we have to give them the tools to do that. They have to understand history to make a better future. They have to be strong readers. They have to have background knowledge.
Social studies instruction can start at home. Check out history books from your local library. Learn about different places in the world. Read aloud to your kid, even after they’re reading books on their own. Not sure where to start? Here’s a great resource.
Don’t be afraid to talk about complex things with your child. They might surprise you.
This article was originally published by Elise moser on medium.