Note: CCSS in this article refers to the Common Core State Standards, not our own California Council for the Social Studies.
The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) offer promising opportunities to increase social studies instruction in the elementary school and to make expository text more accessible in the middle and high school social studies classroom. Why do I believe Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts can open the doors to more effective social studies instruction for all students? In this article I will address some promising features of the CCSS as well as some shortcomings as they relate to the English Learner, followed by suggestions on how this can look in the social studies classroom.
Many elementary teachers lament the loss of social studies instruction in their classrooms. Especially in schools not meeting reading expectations on state tests, class time is being given over predominantly to language arts and math instruction despite the fact that background knowledge is a critical component of reading comprehension. Students are being denied access to knowledge of their world that is learned through social studies instruction and students, therefore, cannot bring this knowledge to bear when reading their anthologies. Wang, Haertel, and Walberg (1993) tell us that
...students benefit from academic inter actions with teachers by receiving instruction that matches their prior knowledge, addresses their misconceptions and organizes knowledge in ways that are meaningful. Instructional techniques, such as scaffolding, mediate between students' prior knowledge and new content (p. 278).
Yet if it is test scores that drive instruction, educators should be very concerned about the lack of informational text students encounter. Looking at the percentage of questions on the National Assessment of Education Progress (2009), questions on Informational Reading and Writing make up over 50% of the questions at the elementary level and 70% by 12th grade.
Given the importance of background knowledge for successful reading comprehension, as demonstrated by research with monolingual students (e.g., Anderson & Pearson, 1984), several studies have investigated the impact of such knowledge on text comprehension for second-language learners (Droop & Verhoeven, 1998; Garcia, 1991; Hacquebord, 1994; Hannon & McNally, 1986 in August et al, 2006, p. 109-110).
The good news is that with their increased focus on informational text, the new CCSS present a prime opportunity to bring social studies back to the elementary classroom. The CCSS for Reading Informational Text provide countless avenues into teaching social studies through a variety of media.
While social studies instruction has not disappeared from middle and high schools, social studies teachers in grades 6-12 will benefit from the CCSS in English Language Arts by being provided the tools they need to make text accessible to all students and by providing students with the tools to show what they know through speaking and writing. Often we hear the concern of social studies teachers at the secondary level because they have so much content and no time to teach reading and writing so that their students can better access the text. For these teachers as well, the CCSS hold promise in that their focus on expository text better prepares English and social studies teachers at the secondary level to teach the types of reading and writing their students need to interact successfully with the curriculum.
What CCSS Says About English Learners
The theme of this issue is literacy and language development for all students, and in California schools we cannot ignore the large population of English Language Learners (ELLs). So what does CCSS have to do with ELLs?
From 1997 to 2008, the number of ELLs enrolled in U.S. public schools increased by 51 percent (National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition, 2011) compared to 7. …