Strategies To Teach Reading Comprehension In A Social Studies Classroom

Photo by  Lilly Rum

Photo by Lilly Rum


I think back to my first years as a social studies teacher, and I have so many wonderful memories. Though, as I referenced in my last article, my 11th grade students, on average, read at a 4th grade level. This meant that there was an all hands-on-deck initiative amongst all academic departments to teach reading comprehension skills. I got the feeling that I needed more training as a reading teacher, so I did some investigating. In this post I address some of the strategies that I used successfully, and some resources that I’ve recently researched.

Vocabulary To Scaffold Knowledge

It is pretty magical what happens when a lesson scaffolds what students need to know. The learning seems effortless, and results can be big. One way that reading can be scaffolded is by building student’s vocabulary base before they tackle a lesson. I like to have students find visual representations of vocabulary words so that they can come “alive” beyond what text can do. A gallery walk can be used to get students chatting about vocabulary. I described gallery walks in this post on language learning. Another strategy for teaching vocabulary, referenced in this article by Amy Menzi, is teaching the roots of words so that students can relate a word to something they already know. Making connections to previous knowledge helps with every academic area.

Teach How To Read Like A Historian

Any time students can read primary sources, this gives them practice in identifying bias and propaganda. This is valuable for understanding present-day society, and is the crux of the curriculum called Reading Like A Historian, designed by the Stanford History Education Group. With this, and similar materials, students can analyze posters, speeches, and newspapers for point of view and underlying messages. This type of lesson, and investigating primary documents usually engages students because of the strong applications to real life. This also allows students to see the complexities beyond the surface of any secondary source.

Close Reading Process

As Amy Menzi explains, close reading is a process that most students become familiar with in elementary school. So it is something that students in older grades will be familiar with and can be used with more complicated readings. Facing History gives a protocol for close reading. This process incorporates the strategies that I address in teaching vocabulary, and builds up to a discussion. In order to understand the connection any resource makes, a graphic organizer can be very beneficial. Think Cerca supplies a myriad of PDFs for graphic organizers to group concepts.

Make Informed Predictions

For years when I taught World History, I would spend the first week of school dissecting the ideas presented in the documentary Gun, Germs, and Steel. From this process students were able to identify major factors that make civilizations powerful and what makes them fall. Then throughout the rest of the year, I would encourage students to predict what happened next when we studied the trajectory of any civilization. This process is taken from a reading strategy where students predict what happens next in a text. This article by Reading Rockets described the process of making predictions in reading. In my experience, when students can predict correctly, this works to increase their self esteem in the subject and in turn take risks to learn more.

Chunking Texts To Make Them More Digestible

Breaking down a long text into chunks can make reading at the upper levels so much more manageable. This also prepares students for future advanced study when they pursue post-secondary education. Facing History gives a process for chunking text, and gives alternatives strategies that can be applied. The University of Texas RTI website gives a description for chunking, and frames the strategy as building up successful and resilient learners.

Cross-Curricular Connections

As a social studies classroom matures to support reading comprehension, the language arts and social studies classes mutually support each other. This is when students get the benefit of being able to make connections to other classes and to the world around them. I am happy to say that I maintained contact with several of my students from my first years of teaching. Many went on to be successful after high school. I am glad to know that when students are not properly prepared for school, these and other strategies work to bring them up to speed.