Four Recommendations to Support Struggling and Reluctant Readers in Social Studies

Teachers should offer a wide variety of literacy support in their social studies curricula, otherwise students can fall behind. 

According to statistics from the 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) Report Card, the scores of the 12th Grade United States History test measured that 48% of adolescent readers read below grade-level proficiency.  Of these struggling readers, one-third identify as English Language Learners and the rest identify as students with disabilities.  The differences in literacy skills are most notable in high school, as students are inundated with increased reading expectations, inaccessible informational texts, limited support for disciplinary texts, and pervasive exposure to teacher-directed instruction.  The challenges for struggling readers are exacerbated in social studies, which is encumbered by an overloaded curriculum and demand for discipline-specific skills from multiple content areas, such as geography, history, economics, and political science.

For English learners, there are added demands of learning culturally distant words and concepts, as well as the expectation of prior knowledge due to vertical standards alignment (e.g. U.S. history in multiple grade bands including elementary, middle, and high school).  Although these facts may be discouraging, there are steps that teachers can take to improve student learning.  For example, students who had teachers who emphasized reading, writing, and text discussion (e.g. high-leverage practices in social studies) scored significantly higher on the NAEP 12th Grade U.S. History test (Heafner & Fitchett, 2015).  The association between high-leverage practices and content knowledge emphasizes the importance of literacy supports.

There are two types of literacy support:

  • General Literacy Scaffolds (GLS) – Help students read text accurately and fluently, generate background knowledge, activate and learn academic vocabulary, organize information into relationships (e.g., compare/contrast), and summarize text.
  • Disciplinary Literacy Scaffolds – Teach students to question the text, identify bias/perspective  develop evidence-informed interpretations of text, corroborate text-based thinking with multiple sources, evaluate the credibility of sources, and leverage evidence for argumentation.

Students will learn to select what they find most helpful for them, which also promotes meta-linguistics and self-efficacy. Often, the most important scaffold teachers can offer is being sure students feel comfortable using their knowledge and skills in new and challenging ways.

I offer four recommendations for how to support literacy instruction through a blending of general and disciplinary literacy.  After each recommendation, I provide reasons for why these literacy supports are successful.  I also offer strategy interventions for implementation from several publications listed at the end.


Photo by Pixabay from Pexels

1: Engage learners with words prior to reading texts  

Vocabulary instruction is important because it builds background knowledge. Vocabulary instruction is essential to learning social studies, but not all word learning should be treated equally. Vocabulary scaffolds should be targeted and specific to texts to ensure context-based word learning. Authentic learning of words in text is the most effective practice for vocabulary instruction.

How to Use It:

  • Provide early, frequent, and targeted interventions with words (e.g. Targeted Vocabulary Strategies).
  • Use strategies such as “Word Wall Maps,” “Word Sorts,” and “List, Group, Label, Theorize” to introduce vocabulary.
  • Engage learners with short texts that allow students to work with words in context.
  • Differentiate word learning with strategies such as “Degrees of Knowledge” or “Relational Analysis.”
  • Teach students to recognize that words are tethered to time, place, and people through “Situated Word Inquiry” (Heafner & Massey, in press).

2: Scaffold disciplinary literacy practice to enhance general literacy strategies

Scaffolding reading is just as important at the top of the language ladder (conversation/talk) as it is at the bottom (word learning).  The more complex the language used in texts, the more they may confuse students. Therefore, primary sources are often daunting to adolescent readers. General literacy supports such as questioning counter these concerns, but remember, questioning is a skill that must be taught. Questioning is also discipline-specific.  Students need to learn what types of questions experts in a discipline ask and why.

How to Use It:

  • Make texts accessible and approachable (e.g. Beginning Inquiry and Seeds of Inquiry).
  • Teach students to question the text by modeling how to monitor their own confusion, how to ask rather than answer questions, and how to validate questions by seeking information from additional sources (e.g. Strategic Reading).

3: Use visual sources to make texts more accessible and to make thinking visible

Visual sources allow students to identify personal observations. Visuals make difficult concepts comprehensible to struggling readers and support English learners in formulating connections in their native language.  Visuals are tools for making thinking noticeable and serve as talking points for discussion in the social studies classroom. Primary source images (e.g. pictures or videos), should be scaffolded and just like primary source texts, these should be used in sets to offer differing perspectives. A rt is an excellent source for visualization because art creates opportunities for contextualizing the influences of identity, culture, space, time, and events. Art offers perspective as a conversation between creator, curator, and viewer across time.

How to Use It:

  • Scaffold reading comprehension with visualization strategies such as “What does it look like?”
  • Support concept formation and guide analyses of time-sensitive perspectives with “Picture Words.”
  • Teach students to notice by looking closely at details (e.g. “I3 Noticing”) and to wonder through questioning and inferring (e.g. “Noticing and Wondering”). Students should also notice what is not visible, which can be revealed when they wonder.
  • Model comparative thinking across images through noticing similarities and differences, and identifying visual evidence to make claims and ask questions (e.g. “Visual Inventory”).



4: Practice disciplinary literacy to prompt thinking

Much of what teachers and students do with disciplinary literacies is scaffold thinking. Like reading, thinking has to be practiced. Students need to have as many opportunities as possible to use disciplinary literacies and to develop critical literacy skills.  Moreover, teachers need to establish that the ways in which students learn content is not homogeneous.  Each discipline has its own set of heuristics that guide how one (more specifically, an expert) would think about content.  Therefore, students should practice disciplinary literacies in diverse contexts and connect learning processes in social studies to other content areas.

How to Use It:

  • Scaffold the reading of texts by chunking texts (e.g. “Divide and Conquer”) and through discipline-specific questioning (e.g. “Important Questions”).
  • Use “Text Strips” that cut apart information into segments
  • Structure reading interventions to prompt thinking and build efficacy in readers (e.g. before-during-after reading interventions).
  • Select accessible and approachable texts for all readers (e.g. “Short Texts”). Do not overwhelm struggling readers or English learners with texts or strategies that far exceed their literacy skills. Students are not historians; they are novice readers who can engage in processes that historians use.
  • Build students’ reading stamina and efficacy first, then challenge and extend reading through the gradual release of responsibility. For example, move students from reading “Text Strips” to “Short Texts” to “Text Sets” to “Primary Sources” with increased expectations for readers.
  • Differentiate how disciplinary literacies vary by content. For example, how might justification about a social studies topic be different than justification in science class? How might it be the same? (see Beginning Inquiry or Seeds of Inquiry).
  • Prompt questioning and practice the types of questions disciplinary experts ask (e.g. “Questioning the Text”). Have students compare the types of questions they ask with the questions experts pose. Challenge students to think about how question formation provides different types information.

For instructional ideas and specific strategies that support each of the four recommendations, I recommend:

Seeking more curriculum and instruction resources?

Sign up to receive our blog updates.




National Center for Education Statistics (2011). The Nation’s Report Card: U.S. History 2010 (NCES 2011–468). Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, Washington, D.C.

Tina L. Heafner, Ph.D. is a professor of social studies education at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and the 2018-2019 President-Elect of the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS). Her research identifies the association among student learning outcomes in social studies, high leverage instructional practices, and teacher professional backgrounds and professional learning experiences. Tina has received awards for her sustained services to schools, high school and university teaching, and research including seven awards from the American Education Research Association, the NCSS College and University Faculty Assembly, and the Society for Information Technology and Education.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.