Does Social Studies Build Stronger Readers? A New Study Suggests So

By Catherine Gewertz — September 25, 2020 3 min read
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A new study suggests that elementary students who spend more time on social studies become better readers.

The report from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute found that spending 30 minutes a day more on social studies is correlated with better reading comprehension. The study doesn’t prove that the first causes the second. But it adds to a long stream of discussion about the role that background knowledge and subject-specific vocabulary can play when children are learning to read.

The study uses a federal database that tracks 18,000 children who were kindergarten students in 2010-11 until they completed 5th grade. The Fordham researchers examined how much time students spent on various subjects, and compared it with how they performed on a reading assessment that’s given at the end of 5th grade as part of the federal study. They focused on about 6,800 students for whom they had sufficient observational details on all the indicators they were studying.

The only subject in which the study found a “clear, positive, and statistically significant effect” of more time spent on a given subject was in social studies.

Adam Tyner, Fordham’s associate director of research and the study’s lead author, and Sarah Kabourek, who focuses on early childhood at the research group NORC at the University of Chicago, found that elementary students spent more time on English/language arts than on any other subject: two hours a day in grades 1-5, compared with 82 minutes in math and about a half-hour each in science and social studies.

“Though many elementary schools have lengthy reading blocks, often every day, time spent on [English/language arts] is not associated with reading improvement,” the report says.

The authors found that students who spent 30 minutes more daily on social studies, however, performed better on the 5th grade reading test—by 15 percent of one standard deviation—than their peers who spent less time on that subject.

Tyner described the effect size as “modest but sustained.”

Sonia Q. Cabell studies the prevention of reading difficulties in young children as an assistant professor at Florida State University’s college of education and the Florida Center for Reading Research. She reviewed the study for Education Week. Cabell called the effect “small but meaningful.”

Even though the study could not establish that more time spent on social studies is what causes better reading performance, she said, its solid design warrants attention to—and further study of—the nature of the connection between the two.

Tyner and Kabourek controlled for kindergarten reading ability, and other factors, including race, family income, and a school’s average length of teacher tenure.

They did note, however, that the amount of classroom time spent on specific subjects “may correlate with other factors for which we are unable to control,” such as teacher quality, so “it is possible” that other things are creating the correlation between improved reading and time on spent on social studies.

Even still, Fordham’s paper said the study findings suggest that teachers reconsider how they’re using their instructional time. They argued that elementary schools should “make more room” for instruction in history, civics, geography and other areas of social studies. Fordham, which has long advocated for knowledge-building curricula, also urged schools to use their literacy blocks to build knowledge, not just teach reading skills, such as finding the main idea, in isolation.

The researchers said in the paper that they were at a loss to explain why additional time spent on science instruction showed no effect similar to the one for social studies. They theorized that the field’s vocabulary could be so specific to its discipline that it might not affect reading comprehension more broadly.

Cabell, too, was perplexed by that portion of the finding. It could be, she said, that the 5th grade tests the students took did not align well to the science they studied. Other research has found that integrating science or social studies into English/language arts instruction can have a positive effect on children’s reading comprehension, Cabell said.

As they are learning to read, young children can build knowledge of the world around them through conversations, read-alouds, and experiential learning, and most researchers agree that these activities should be key components of their early reading instruction. Research shows that young children’s ability to understand what they read depends in large part on the background knowledge and vocabulary they bring to the endeavor. They also need to be able to follow a story’s structure, and apply analytical thinking to it.

Photo: Allison Shelley for American Education

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.