Bill and Melinda Gates want our students reading more informational texts.  Actually, that's what we do primarily as adults, so much so that many people don't have left over time to read for the pure pleasure of it.

For those of us who teach history-social studies this shift is a godsend.  When it comes to Social Studies, there are two questions to answer about this shift.

  • What non-fiction or informational text should my students read?
  • How should I support the language arts teacher in teaching the students to read in my content area of history-social science.

What to Read:  Recommending Informational Texts

First of all there are many recommended and interesting non-fiction items  that are as pleasurable to read as fiction.  In the Implementation Toolkit published by Tulare County Office of Education aligning the ELA Common Core Standards and the History-Social Science Analysis Skills, there is a list of books recommended in the standards and the California State Framework for History-Social Science.  Two types of informational materials are examined in subsequent paragraphs.

Cover designed by Laura Malmquist

Reading Biographies 

One of the easiest and most engaging informational texts for students to read are biographies.  Suggested biographies are listed for each grade levels.   Biographies  bring history to life because they put faces on the people that played in the drama of history.  Students  typically start out thinking that  "people in the past were stupid"  (Levstick & Barton. 2011. p. 134).  Biographies put people and their environments into perspective, and answer big questions about why they made the choices they made.

Student Activities to Make Biographies Relevant

  • participating in readers' theaters
  • reading silently using graphic organizers to process information
  • practicing choral-reading interspersed with solo readers to stress:  timing, vocal emphasis and pronunciation
  • writing biographical poems
  • creating an advertisement for the biographical character using propaganda techniques
  • taking notes from different sources about the target historical character
  • making comments on a blog about the biography

Reading Primary Sources

  •  Diaries
  •  Memos
  •  Letters
  •  Photographs
  •  Cartoons
  •  Paintings
  •  Billboards
  •  Statues
  •  Autobiographies
  •  Charts
  •  Maps
  •  Political documents
  •  Military records
  •  Vital records
  •  Census records

Two Tools to Analyze Primary Sources:

One of the most important differences between analyzing sources from a language arts perspective and a history-social studies perspective is the critical, analytic eye with which historians look at the source.  Bruce Lesh, author of "Why Won't You Just Tell Us the Answer?" instructs his students to look beyond the text to the context and the subtext of the source.  The context is what was going on in the world during the time the source was created, and the subtext is reading between the lines to find out what is known about the author and the intended audience of the source.  Students are taught to ask, "What was the reason this source was produced when it was?"  Lesh. p. 39  this kind of questions jolt students out of their complacent history comfort zone into a place where they are forced to examine history as it was.

Using primary sources and biographies of both famous and ordinary folks that lived during particular periods of history allow students to create their own understanding of the context of history and draw conclusions in the same way that professional historians do when they are "doing" the work  of historians.  Students who read more informational texts and spend time analyzing them will develop critical thinking skills they need to be effective citizens of the 21st century.

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