Product Finder

Product Finder

Read About Best Practices in Social Studies Content Integration


This module explores social studies content integration. It examines how to work with proven reading comprehension strategies through content instruction.

Social studies content integration lets students practice and apply reading comprehension strategies in content-area texts. The primary focus of social studies content integration is to teach students “inferential and reasoning skills that are necessary to connect information in the text to relevant prior knowledge” (van den Broek and Kremer, The Mind in Action).

Instruction in making inferences enhances reading comprehension (Vacca and Vacca, Content Area Reading). Drawing conclusions and evaluating are also essential in interpreting expository text, as is familiarity with these text structures:

  • Problem and solution
  • Descriptions
  • Cause-and-effect relationships
  • Categorizing
  • Sequencing
  • Comparisons

Students must also learn to use organizational features:

  • Table of Contents
  • Chapter and section previews and summaries
  • Headings and subheadings
  • Photographs and illustrations, including captions
  • Graphics
  • Glossary
  • Index

Since vocabulary knowledge and reading comprehension go hand in hand, teachers must provide effective vocabulary instruction to equip students with tools to independently learn words. By implementing specific skills and strategies that are necessary to be successful learners in the content area, students will further their awareness of text structures, enhance their ability to identify important information, and strengthen their comprehension.

Social Studies Standards

The National Council for Social Studies has identified the following strands of study for all students in grades K–8:

  • Culture
  • Time, Continuity, and Change
  • People, Places, and Environments
  • Individual Development and Identity
  • Individuals, Groups, and Institutions
  • Power, Authority, and Governance
  • Production, Distribution, and Consumption
  • Science, Technology, and Society
  • Global Connections
  • Civic Ideals and Practices


Culture is all around us. Our cultural backgrounds influence the way we see and interact with the world. Each culture has a unique system of beliefs, knowledge, values, and traditions, yet all have commonalities as well. Because we live in a multicultural society, teachers must help students in the primary years learn to understand and appreciate similarities and differences. By the intermediate and middle school years, students begin to formulate opinions based on their ideas of culture. Social studies instruction provides a forum for students to acquire and assimilate information—including the influence of language and beliefs on day-to-day life.

Time, Continuity, and Change

The nature of social studies requires an understanding of the passage of time and the realization that some things change and some things stay the same. In this area of study, students ask:

  • Who am I?
  • What happened in the past?
  • How am I connected to the people and events of the past?
  • How has the world changed?
  • How does the impact of the past change over time?
  • How can our present perspectives on our own lives play a part in the larger human story across time?
  • How do our personal stories reflect varying points of view and inform present ideas and actions?
  • How might the world change in the future?

People, Places, and Environments

In this strand, students study the relationships between populations and their environments:

  • Where are cities, businesses, industrial operations, courthouses, grocery stores, etc. located?
  • Why are they located where they are?
  • What patterns are reflected in the groupings of things?
  • What is a region?
  • How do landforms change?
  • What effects do these changes have on the people in the area?

Individual Development and Identity

Since society influences the individual development and identity of its members, students must learn to recognize and understand cultural norms. Questions central to this study include:

  • How do people learn?
  • Why do people behave as they do?
  • What influences how people learn, perceive, and grow?
  • How do people meet their basic needs in a variety of contexts—farm, city, town, or village?

Individuals, Groups, and Institutions

Institutions—family structures, schools, churches, government agencies, and legal systems—form early in the development of a culture. Each institution guides daily life and reflects the values and beliefs of the culture. Students might ask:

  • What are the roles of institutions in this and other societies?
  • How am I influenced by institutions?
  • How do institutions change?
  • What is my role in changing institutions?

Social Studies Standards

Power, Authority, and Governance

Since differing forms of power, authority, and government exist in every culture, students must study these systems in order to better understand the behaviors and patterns of citizens. Issues students might address are:

  • What is power?
  • What forms does it take?
  • How is power gained, used, and justified?
  • What is legitimate authority?
  • How are governments structured?
  • What is the difference between a right and a privilege?
  • What are the responsibilities of those in power?
  • What are the responsibilities of all citizens?
  • How do groups and nations seek to establish order and security?
  • How do groups and nations attempt to resolve conflicts?

Production, Distribution, and Consumption

People often want more goods or services than they find available. Solutions are attempted at the local, state, national, and global levels. Issues related to production, distribution, consumption, jobs, and economic prosperity include:

  • What will be produced?
  • How will production be organized?
  • How will goods and services be distributed?
  • What is the most effective allocation of land, labor, capital, and management?

Science, Technology, and Society

Discoveries, inventions, and innovations date back to the beginning of time and bring both positive and negative changes. Questions fundamental to the study of science and technology and their effects on society include:

  • How have technological advances in the past brought major societal change?
  • Is new technology always better?
  • How can we cope with the pace of change?
  • Have technological advances peaked?
  • How can individuals and groups maintain distinct identities, while technology links us all together?

Global Connections

The world is growing smaller due to advances in transportation and communication. Economies, governments, and businesses all experience large-scale interdependence. To address global connections, students study economic needs and competition, political and military alliances, and the importance of recognizing ethnic differences.

Civic Ideals and Practices

All societies have civic ideals and expected practices. Questions central to these issues are:

  • What is civic involvement?
  • How can I become an active member of society?
  • What does citizenship mean now as compared to what it meant fifty years ago?
  • What is the balance between rights and responsibilities?
  • What is the role of a citizen in a community, city, state, nation, and world?

Each strand provides rich opportunities for reading and writing connections. In addition, strong strategy instruction helps students understand the important role of social studies in daily life. Let’s examine information specific to strong instructional practices.

The Role of Strategy Instruction

In content-area instruction, students use what they learn in their reading instruction. Reading instruction is designed to have students read and make sense of any text they encounter. Therefore, social studies teachers must be reading teachers, too. With this frame of mind, teaching and learning can reach new levels of effectiveness. Following are guidelines to follow before, during, and after reading social studies texts.

Before Reading

“For maximum learning, students need prior knowledge about the topic being studied and they need to relate that prior knowledge to the contents of the passage.” (Readence, Moore, and Rickelman)

The time it takes to build background knowledge is non-negotiable in supporting students’ growth as developing readers. Without this knowledge, students will consistently struggle to make connections with the text.

The KWHL strategy allows readers an opportunity to think about a text before working with the actual print. As students activate their prior knowledge about the content and the vocabulary they will encounter, they can visualize, predict, and begin to make connections to the topic at hand—increasing their chances for strong comprehension.

During Reading

The focus of during-reading strategies is to develop and enhance metacognition—thinking skills. Because of tight schedules, teachers may be tempted to assign the during-reading portion of the lesson for homework. However, this makes it impossible to model, teach, and practice the effective during-reading strategies that boost students’ levels of comprehension and recall. Laura Robb states the following steps for during-reading instruction:

  • Isolate and model a during-reading strategy, and make it visible for students.
  • Have students practice the strategy during class time. Make sure the guided-practice sessions involve a topic from the curriculum or are related to it.

In order to teach the thinking processes that occur during reading, carefully model with think-alouds while reading parts of the text to your students. Next, use the following questions to provide guidance to students as they learn to think aloud on their own, with a partner, in a small-group, or in a whole-group setting:

Questions for Think-Alouds
  • How do I say that word?
  • What does that word mean?
  • What do I need to know about events leading up to this?
  • Does this phrase, passage, or sentence make sense?
  • Do I recall what I just read?
  • How can I find the main idea?
  • How can I figure out the implied meanings?

Vocabulary Development

Comprehending new words is like dating: You’re introduced, take several months to get acquainted, and finally reach a point where you know each other. (Laura Robb, Easy Mini-Lessons for Building Vocabulary)

Challenging vocabulary can frustrate even the most accomplished reader. Quick interpretation of unfamiliar words is imperative for comprehension to remain unscathed. The sheer volume of words specific to the content areas makes it difficult to preteach each word and allow students time to internalize the meaning. Instead, the focus of vocabulary instruction should be to instill strategic tools to quickly decipher meaning—with the dictionary as last resort.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do I preteach words that are central to the concept or topic?
  • Do I use key words in my own speech?
  • Do I model how words work in sentences?
  • Do I help students move partially learned words into their active vocabularies?
  • Do I offer students word-learning strategies they can use independently?
  • Do I encourage students to read in my subject area?

Adapted from L. Robb, Teaching Reading in Science, Social Studies, and Math.

Prompts for Unfamiliar Words

  • Sometimes prompts help students determine the meanings of unfamiliar words.

Vocabulary Development

Context Clues

When a student is stuck on a word, we have all heard teachers say, “Go back and read the words around it. You can figure it out!” However, context clues are not always obvious. Save time in the long run and see better results by teaching students different types of clues.

A Clear Definition or Synonym

These clues are usually joined with a linking verb. Often, the author will follow the initial definition with more detailed and specific information.

Example: A Labrador Retriever is a dog.

Concrete Examples

The author provides the reader with an example or illustration that makes a difficult concept or idea clear. The example might be found in the same sentence or the sentences before or after. Signal words to look for are: such as, including, for instance, to illustrate, are examples of, other examples, and for example.

Example: Air pollution causes harm to the environment. Car exhaust and fumes from oil refineries, burning trash, and cigarette smoke are all examples of air pollution.

Contrast Clues

Sometimes, authors will contrast a word with an antonym.

Example: Unlike evergreen trees, deciduous trees drop their leaves each year.

Words or Phrases that Modify an Unfamiliar Word

Sometimes adjectives, adverbs, or relative clauses contain clues to a word’s meaning. Signal words: who, which, that, whose, or whom.

Example: The tree is dormant, which means “not active,” or “asleep.”

Conjunctions that Connect Relationships and Ideas

Conjunctions can show relationships between words and allow the reader to link ideas. Signal words: and, but, or, nor, for, yet, if, since, even though, just as, when, whenever, until, although, and because.

Example: This bioluminescence, or light, helps them find food or confuse prey.

Repetition of a Word

Authors often repeat unfamiliar words, thus allowing the reader multiple opportunities to construct meaning.

Example: Mammals include dogs, tigers, and humans. Mammals have lungs and breathe air. Mammals are warm-blooded. Mammals give birth to live young and nurse their babies with milk. Mammals have hair on their bodies.

Connecting to Readers’ Prior Knowledge

Authors often use common ideas as scaffolding for less familiar ones. Good readers use what they already know to determine meanings of unknown words.

Example: When you pick a piece of lint off your sweater, brush some dirt off your jeans, or smooth the wrinkles out of your shirt, be glad you don’t have to preen yourself with a beak as penguins do.

Writing Connections

“When students are asked to write about content area concepts, they must select and then organize words to represent their understanding of what they have read. To accomplish this, they must relate, connect, and organize ideas from the text… They must also build interrelationships between the ideas stated in the texts and their own prior knowledge, background and purpose for reading.” (William G. Brazo and Michele L. Simpson)

Writing is an active process that encourages students to think critically and creatively about concepts they encounter in the content areas. Writing also allows a clear window into students’ understanding. Teachers are often able to use a writing sample to determine exactly where meaning falls apart for students.

When working with classroom writing activities, the assignment itself must be carefully planned. Connelly and Irving (1976) say that the single greatest cause for bad writing is bad writing assignments. Students must clearly understand:

  • Topic
  • Purpose
  • Audience
  • Options for planning
  • Options for composition format
  • Expectations for length, grammar, mechanics, and spelling
  • Evaluation plan

Academic Journals

As Fulwiler (1987) explains, a student academic journal provides opportunities for discussion, small-group interaction, clarification, stimulation, and active learning. Following are two options for academic journals. Remember that these are effective tools only if modeled carefully. Students must understand the process and expectations.

Double-Entry Journals: These journals combine text examples with personal responses. On the left-hand side of the page, the student records a small excerpt from the text. On the right-hand side, he or she responds to the text with thoughts, questions, or comments. Students may also use illustrations to further clarify their thinking. To provide a common example, photocopy an excerpt and have students paste it into their journals. (Calkins, 1986)

Personal-Response Journals: This format also asks students to analyze text from a personal perspective in order to internalize the connections they make as they read. Students write about what they perceive in the text and then discuss the thoughts and feelings that stem from their perceptions. Suggested personal-response questions are: What aspect of the text affected or interested you most? What are your feelings about this aspect of the text? What experiences could you share that would help others understand why you feel the way you do?


Students can use what they learn while reading and studying different topics in social studies to create written and visual representations of their knowledge. In the past, this was often limited to simple handwritten reports. Today, students can let their imaginations soar with word-processing programs, multi-media computer programs, digital scrapbooks, and other available technology applications. Student writing can be incorporated into each medium, and older peers or parent volunteers can be trained to help students one on one with their projects.