Teaching Reading In Social Studies

by | Apr 19, 2022 | Reading, Teaching Strategies | 0 comments

I remember when the social studies and science teachers in my middle school were first told we had to start teaching reading skills. Our reaction was, “Who is helping us teach our standards?” At the time, the science of reading was not a common topic, and most middle school teachers had not had much training in reading education. (Having started in upper elementary grades, my training differed from my colleagues.)

Now that I have a better understanding of reading issues in middle school, especially with my son’s experience with vision processing issues, my attitude toward  – and understanding of – teaching reading in content classes has changed.

In secondary classes, teachers should not necessarily teach the basics of reading (phonics), but they need to be aware of the reading difficulties many students have and how to support those students – especially when many students are not identified with dyslexia or vision processing issues.

The Science Of Reading

Recently, there has been a push for schools to adopt curriculum that is aligned with the Science of Reading (SoR). Decades of research into how people learn to read has shown that students need five elements to be successful readers:

  • Comprehension
  • Fluency
  • Vocabulary
  • Phonics
  • Phonemic Awareness

Unfortunately, reading programs have not focused on phonics for at least three decades – I went through my teaching courses without any specific instruction on teaching phonics. Many reading programs that have been used in elementary school since then do not follow the science of reading, including Guided Reading, Reader’s Workshop, Balanced Literacy, Reading Recovery, and Leveled Literacy Instruction. Over my years in the classroom, I saw more and more struggling readers at the middle school level, quite possibly due to the shift to whole language instruction.

Examples Of Struggling Students

Until I went through school as a parent, I did not understand the need for phonics instruction. I was able to read before kindergarten, and phonics lessons always confused me. So I just assumed that phonics was only needed by some students and wasn’t that important. (Upon reflection, I think I learned a lot of phonics from watching Sesame Street..)

I have two children, and their school experience has been very different. At the same time, they both struggle with different aspects of reading. 

My daughter sailed through school – she always did well and was one of the top readers in her grade. However, she could not pronounce words she didn’t know. She would ask me about a word in a book, and I usually had to have her spell them. I could not figure out what the words were from her pronunciation. She also could not repeat words – if I pronounced a word and had her say it back, it sounded nothing like what I said.

On the other hand, my son would refuse to read. He loved to be read to, but not actually read the books himself. He would scream for hours instead of reading for ten minutes (no exaggeration.) Retention was discussed, but in primary grades he was advanced in everything but reading, and even in reading he wasn’t a year behind. I was often told he was an August birthday, so he probably was immature. It wasn’t until he did standardized testing in third grade that I realized something was actually wrong. That summer, he was diagnosed with a vision processing disorder.

If you had taught my kids in middle school, you might not have even realized they both struggled with reading. My daughter was very successful in school and continues to do well in college. After meeting with a vision therapist, we learned she probably has an auditory processing issue (similar to her brother’s issue but with hearing) but compensates well. She reads very well and quickly, but she still cannot decode words for pronunciation and struggles with foreign language learning. She dislikes talking on the phone and cannot remember oral instructions.

My son is also very bright, but his school records don’t reflect how smart he is nor how much he struggles. He learns more easily through lectures, videos, and discussion, although he sometimes needs to hear things multiple times. If you ask him about what he is learning, he can’t always articulate what he knows, and he struggles on tests. This year, we hired an Orton-Gillingham trained tutor, and she identified that not only could he not decode words, but he also could not relate sounds to letters or picture what he reads. He literally had no recall after reading a text.

Why am I telling you this? I think it is important for teachers to realize that students may be struggling readers and you could easily not know. By middle school, students can be very good at hiding weaknesses and compensating for them.

Teaching Reading In Content Classes

Although we know that phonics is key to improving reading skills, it is not realistic to expect content-area teachers to teach phonics in secondary grade levels. Students who can read don’t need it, and the phonics instruction needs to be systematic and direct for those that do need it. Instead, secondary teachers should push for their schools to use programs like Orton-Gillingham, the Wilson Reading System, the Lindamood Phoneme Sequencing Program, and Direct Instruction in their intensive reading classes. 

Secondary teachers can use what we know about the SoR to better support students in learning content. Instead of teaching basic reading skills, they can teach students how to use reading as a tool. Students need to learn how to construct meaning from what they read.


1. Activate Prior Knowledge

Cognitive scientists believe that readers make sense of what they read by connecting it to their prior knowledge. Knowledge is stored in frameworks called schemata. People refer to these schemata as they learn new information to make predictions, inferences, and connections.

The more connections someone makes between new information and prior information, the easier it is for them to retrieve that information later. Think about it like highways. If you connect new information to multiple sets of schemata, you have more roads that lead to the destination. 

2. Teach Students Metacognition

Metacognition is the awareness and understanding of one’s thought processes. In other words, it is thinking about thinking. 

Students who know metacognitive skills can reflect on their learning, planning and checking their comprehension, and modifying their strategies as needed. Struggling readers need to be explicitly taught how to monitor their thinking and strategies they could use to support their learning.

Students need to be taught how to reflect on and organize their learning. For example, teachers could explicitly teach the use of graphic organizers and note-taking strategies. 

3. Have Students Write about Learning

Reading and writing support each other. Understanding how to write supports reading comprehension because it teaches students how authors organize texts. Teachers can help students by explicitly teaching writing structures. For example, in a social studies class, students need to read and comprehend a primary document, so teachers should break down how the text is organized.

In addition, research has connected writing about learning with improved comprehension. When students need to write about learning, they have to reread and reflect upon what was read. They need to be able to explain what they have learned in a meaningful way, especially if students are asked to do more than summarize – switch things up by asking them to state their opinion and defend it with evidence from what they read.

4. Have Students Discuss Learning

Discussion of learning increases learning. They can ask and answer questions about the lesson, and reflect upon what they took from the text compared to other students. The more students interact and wrestle with the information, the more they will learn. 

5. Teach Vocabulary in Context

The SoR has proven that vocabulary instruction is important to understand reading. Vocabulary needs to be taught in context, not isolation. 

Teachers who go beyond the basic definition will help improve students’ vocabulary retention. For example, teachers could use a Frayer model for vocabulary, connecting the definition with examples and nonexamples of the term. The more connections students can make to the vocabulary, the more likely they will be to remember it.

6. Include Auditory Options

As teachers may not realize who needs reading support, providing auditory options allows students to select the method of instruction that is best for them. (This is an example of why it is important for them to have and use metacognition.) Many struggling readers actually can comprehend high-level texts if they listen to them – they know many words, they just can’t decode them in their reading.

Technology has made it easier for teachers to have auditory options. There are many programs that will convert text to speech, including Natural Reader (free edu account) and TTSReader.

Also, teachers could provide a text and a video option. My son would often search the topic he had to study and watch a video on it to learn the information. There are some great history channels aimed at secondary students on Youtube, although some episodes are more geared to high school. (Some of them talk far too fast as well – something I realized when helping my son. Talking fast might be great for squeezing in information, but it can be hard for students with sensory processing issues to keep up.)


From researching the SoR and my own experiences, these are six ways secondary content teachers can support students with reading. These suggestions are different than I had imagined 20 years ago when I was told I had to teach reading in history class. 

Middle and high school teachers should focus on teaching students how to use reading as a learning tool rather than the basics of reading. (But do push your school to teach the basics in their remedial reading classes. My son has made great strides in four months of direct phonics instruction – more than he has in 6 years of intervention support.) 

Teaching students strategies for success will help build their confidence that they can achieve, even if they struggle with reading. As students feel successful, they become more willing to engage in the work.

Aftunion. “Teaching Reading Is Rocket Science.” American Federation of Teachers, AFT, 2 Sept. 2020, https://www.aft.org/ae/summer2020/moats.

Barton, Mary Lee, and Deborah L Jordyn. Teaching Reading in Science: A Supplement to “Teaching Reading in the Content Areas Teacher’s Manual (2nd Edition). Eisenhower Program for Mathematics and Science Education, https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED469112.pdf.

Curriculum Evaluation Tool January 2021 – TRL National. https://www.thereadingleague.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/Curriculum-Evaluation-Tool-January-2021.pdf.

Loewus, Liana. “What Teachers Should Know about the Science of Reading (Video and Transcript).” Education Week, Education Week, 1 Sept. 2021, https://www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/what-teachers-should-know-about-the-science-of-reading-video-and-transcript/2019/03.

Spear-Swerling, Louise. “Structured Literacy and Typical Literacy Practices.” Reading Rockets, 2018, https://www.readingrockets.org/content/pdfs/structured-literacy.pdf. 

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Over twenty plus years, my educational career has spanned four continents and two states, as well as eight grade levels!

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