The latest “nation’s report card” is grim: Just 13 percent of 8th graders hit the “proficient” mark in U.S. history, and 22 percent hit the goal in civics. This represents a 2-point drop in civics from 2018, the first decrease since testing on the subject began 24 years ago. History results are even more dire: The average score dropped 5 points, representing a significant downward trajectory that started in 1994. Once we’ve picked our jaws up off the floor, we have to ask, what do we do?
While we need a range of solutions, including carving out more time for high-quality civics and history instruction beginning in elementary school, we can’t ignore the role reading plays. National Assessment of Educational Progress reading scores released in the fall of 2022 showed less than a third of 8th graders are performing at the NAEP proficient level.
It all fits. Students can’t develop content knowledge if they can’t read the material in history and civics classes (or a general social studies course).
We have to attack the problem in two ways—shifting what happens in English class and changing how we teach civics and history. We need to include more civics and history in literacy lessons and add more deliberate literacy instruction in civics and history.
Doing this is imperative. Over a quarter century of research is emphatic: The more knowledge students have about the world, the better their reading comprehension is. The better they read, the better able they are to access more complex and compelling reading material and build more knowledge to become even better readers. Reading ability and building knowledge are mutually supportive.
For starters, English class should include more nonfiction. Educational standards adopted by most states, which I worked with a team of educators to write, call for that. But is it happening? How many curricular programs regularly focus time and attention on content-rich texts? How many cultivate students’ literacy and knowledge bases simultaneously?
Many programs serve up a scattershot approach, toggling quickly between a range of disconnected topics, often weighted toward fiction—which hardly adds up to building a coherent body of knowledge.
Of course, improving student achievement in history and civics shouldn’t be—can’t be—the sole responsibility of a school’s English department if students are going to make genuine headway.
In my more than a decade of training teachers around the nation on college- and career-readiness standards in English/language arts and literacy, I often hear complaints from social studies (and other content-area) teachers that students can’t access their textbooks—too complex, they say. Teachers fret they have no choice but to lecture, convey the textbook’s important ideas through slides, and hope what they say sticks.
While history and civics teachers can certainly benefit from more literacy training, most already have what it takes to adopt a literacy-rich approach to their content teaching.
My middle school granddaughter recently confessed to loathing her history class. I took a deep breath and looked at her textbook and class notes before launching into my appeal on history’s behalf. What I found, both in the textbook and notes (one a recitation of the other) was dull. Both were full of stats but short on ideas or any discussion of the larger consequences. I couldn’t tell how events or people connected or what lessons I was meant to learn. Neither offered additional resources to flesh out my understanding, connect what happened then to what’s happening now, or address the age-old question, “Why do I even need to learn this?”
There’s a better way. While history and civics teachers can certainly benefit from more literacy training, most already have what it takes to adopt a literacy-rich approach to their content teaching. It is vital that attending to students’ reading skills be designed to complement the specific content demands of the discipline, not replace them.
I’ve seen this in action. Eighth grade classrooms in districts as varied as Charlotte, N.C.; Denver; Oakland, Calif.; and New York City have used a literacy-rich history/civics lesson on Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and the nation’s broader ideals of equality and freedom. I’ve helped teach the approach to scores of adult educators over the past four years, and here’s how it works: Students first watch a related video of President Abraham Lincoln meeting with soldiers and study Civil War photographs. Next, they read conceptually related passages, tailored to a range of student levels to provide context and build their knowledge.
The previously unfamiliar quickly becomes familiar: Students are prepared to dig deeply into the meaning and messages of the Gettysburg Address—then and now.
Feedback from teachers has been instantaneous and positive. They report leaving the training with ready-to-use instructional activities that will engage their learners in high levels of content and language development. “I particularly like the scaffolding of the Gettysburg Address. I never analyzed it that way before and I believe that these strategies would work with other historical documents as well,” one trainee told me. “These activities will make the classes dynamic and support deep learning.”
It’s not a zero-sum game: Both content areas—history/civics and literacy—gain. Taking this literacy-rich approach to history/civics instruction not only makes students more informed citizens but also makes them better readers. And it can go a long way toward addressing the urgent crisis before us. The 8th graders who took these tests last year are in high school today. Unless we do something to grab their interest and advance their reading competence, they will soon enter college and the workforce with extremely limited knowledge about American democracy and our history. That’s a grave threat to our nation.
This dovetails with the threat inherent in students’ poor reading scores. That threatens their futures—futures in which they will be expected to independently and confidently pick through staggering amounts of information. We can tackle these twin problems by acknowledging literacy and civics are tightly intertwined, shifting instruction to reflect that reality, and providing all students with the intellectual stimulation they crave and the learning opportunities they so desperately need.
A version of this article appeared in the May 17, 2023 edition of Education Week as How Reading Can Help Fix Declines in History and Civics Score