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Shanahan on Literacy

Timothy Shanahan

Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan shares best practices for teaching reading and writing. Dr. Shanahan is an internationally recognized professor of urban education and reading researcher who has extensive experience with children in inner-city schools and children with special needs. All posts are reprinted with permission from Shanahan on Literacy.

Integrating Literacy Instruction with Science and Social Studies

April 18, 2022

Teacher question: I wonder why you never write about curriculum integration. This year my district is all about including social studies in all of our lessons and my sister (a teacher in another state) is doing something like that with science in the upper grades. Do you have any advice for teachers like us?

Shanahan’s response:

As a teacher I was a strong advocate of integrating reading and writing instruction at a time when that kind of thing wasn’t common. Later, when I became an academic, I studied reading–writing relationships and that blossomed into an interest in the combination of other curricula as well which eventually led to my work on disciplinary literacy.

In the late 1990s, I wrote about curricular integration with a great deal of angst (Shanahan, 1997). At that time, there were only a handful of studies that had explored the impact of combining reading with writing or any other subject. Even worse, those few efforts were unsuccessful; teaching various subjects together seemed to result in less learning, not more. We had good reasons to think integration could be beneficial, but no real supporting evidence. What a disappointment.

But 1997 was a long time ago.

Since then, there have been dozens of studies exploring issues of curriculum integration. As research has progressed, the newer studies have become more ambitious in curriculum design, more detailed in their results, and more rigorous in their research design. There has been so much of that kind of work we even have several meta-analyses of it.

For example, a meta-analysis of more than 100 studies, grades 2-12, reported that having students write about the texts they were reading improved reading comprehension and the learning of information from the texts (Graham & Hebert, 2010). Writing about the texts had a bigger impact on learning than reading or reading and rereading. Various kinds of writing in response to texts were effective. Text summarizations or retellings were most effective with younger students and more extended writings (analysis, critique, synthesis) had a bigger learning payoff for the older ones.

Studies continue to accumulate showing that combining reading and writing can enhance learning, particularly when these combinations are carried out in content areas like history (De La Paz & Felton, 2010; Monte-Sano, 2011; Monte-Sano, De La Paz, & Felton, 2014; Sielaff & Washburn, 2015; Wiley & Voss, 1999).

Another body of studies has examined reading instruction in the context of middle school and high school social studies and science classes. These studies (Swanson, Wanzek, Vaughn, Roberts, & Fall, 2015; Vaughn et al., 2013; Wanzek, Swanson, Roberts, Vaughn, & Kent, 2015) emphasized text reading, connecting text-based learning to prior learning, and applying the knowledge gained from texts to problem-solving activities in the content areas. Such literacy activities enhanced performance on measures of content knowledge, content reading comprehension, and standardized reading comprehension.

A meta-analysis of 16 such studies (Swanson, Wanzek, Vaughn, Roberts, & Fall, 2015) examined the impact of reading interventions delivered with social studies content. Such approaches proved effective with learning disabled students across grade levels — they did best in the upper grades. Studies in this synthesis focused on graphic organizers, mnemonics, reading and answering questions assignments, guided notes, and other related practices, and reported positive results with both social studies content and reading comprehension. A similar meta-analysis (Kaldenberg, Watt, & Therrien, 2015), this one examining reading instruction using science texts, reported similar outcomes with learning disabled students.

Not only were these approaches successful with struggling readers, but they have evidently worked with students from a wide array of demographic backgrounds (economic, racial, ethnic, linguistic).

Recently, this kind of research has taken an important turn. Now there are high-quality studies that have examined the impacts of curricular integration in elementary school, including in the primary grades.

For instance, the use of learning projects that address a combination of social studies and literacy standards led to increased learning of both content and improved ability to read informational text (Duke, Halvorsen, Strachan, Kim, & Konstantopoulos, 2021). That study took place in second-grade classrooms.

Likewise, teaching social studies and science units within the literacy block in grades K-4 was found effective in increasing content knowledge and informational text reading skills (Connor, Dombek, Crowe, Spencer, Tighe, Coffinger, Zargar, Wood, & Petscher, 2017). These effects were greater for social studies and science knowledge than reading, though there were some reading improvements. Similar results were evident with science knowledge — but not with reading comprehension — in a study conducted with fourth-grade science content (Cervetti, Barber, Dorph, Pearson, & Goldschmidt, 2012).

What does all that mean?

  • The use of content texts in reading comprehension lessons can improve content knowledge and reading ability.
  • Teaching students how to use reading and writing in content classrooms can also have these kinds of dual effects.
  • Curriculum integration can have positive outcomes across a wide range of grades and with a wide range of students (including demographics and learning abilities).

I sure feel better about all of this than I did in 1997. However, there are both important insights and cautions to be drawn from these studies.

1. Integration has led to greater gains in content knowledge than improvements in literacy. This is to be expected as the studies often aligned their knowledge tests with the content taught in their lessons – and reading was often evaluated with more general standardized assessments. I suspect it’s easier to teach a specific set of facts than to improve someone’s reading skills. In any event, given these findings, the successful combination of reading and science or social studies should not encourage schools to reduce the amounts of explicit reading instruction that they provide. Kids still need to develop print awareness, phonemic sensitivity, decoding skills, oral reading fluency, general vocabulary, grammatical skills, as well as general reading comprehension abilities. Those are not likely to benefit from these integration efforts.

2. Also, it is important to remember that the reading teachers have special responsibilities when it comes to literature. Literature is a content, just like social studies and science. It seems wise to focus some reading units on the reading of informational or expositional texts. It is just as wise to provide a similarly sharp focus on reading literature and understanding how it works.

3. Even with integration, we should be delivering high quality science and social studies lessons. There is more to these subjects than text reading, though text reading certainly matters. At this stage, integration should create opportunities for double dosing and extending lessons, rather than to making the curriculum more efficient. Such efficiencies may be a reasonable long-range goal, but we don’t know enough for that yet.

4. Some states/districts/schools limit what can be included in their literacy block. Those rules and regs would prevent teachers from the kind of curriculum integration discussed here. Those limitations should be rethought to allow teachers to teach students to read social studies and science, including the use of informational texts that may not be drawn from the approved reading textbooks.

5. In many of these studies, the teachers were guided to make accommodations in the text difficulty students were asked to read. This was done by putting the lowest readers in easier texts. This may have been part of the reason why there were greater gains in content than reading. If students are practicing reading comprehension with texts they can already read satisfactorily, progress will be low. I’d encourage teachers not to reduce the text complexity – except possibly for the very low readers (K-1 level) but spend time showing students how to make sense of unknown vocabulary, complicated sentences, subtle cohesive links, and complex text organization. This should include showing students how to read and reread content texts in small chunks, linking those pieces together as you go. (Such lessons could easily replace the kinds of round robin reading so ubiquitous in social studies and science classes).

6. The research has produced several successful examples of integration. I assure you that in none of these cases did they just slap the subjects together. No, they came up with well-organized schemes for these combinations. For example, a common practice was to focus on culminating reports, projects, electronic presentations, and so on. These outcomes helped to make the student efforts purposeful, provided motivation, and allowed teachers and students to appraise the learning. Also, there were schemes for connecting new concepts to student knowledge and to clarify the meaning of what was read (with teachers and the other students), there were research and information recording systems, and organizational schemes that included whole class, small group, and individual work. Teachers that want to take on the challenge of integrated instruction would be advised to follow these models closely.

7. Finally, it is crucial that teachers recognize that curriculum integration is more than an alternative way of teaching. Its purpose, ultimately, is to increase the intellectual challenge of our curriculum and to foster a greater depth and appreciation of knowledge and research. In these studies, that was often evident in the curriculum designs, though surprisingly, it was rarely addressed in the evaluations. Integrated instruction should do more than improve reading comprehension (e.g, understanding or remembering facts). With such curricula, students should be reading more critically (such as recognizing the fallibility of sources). And, content outcomes should be more than longer lists of facts the students have managed to memorize but a deeper understanding and appreciation of the nature and value of scientific and historical knowledge.

References and other relevant sources

Cantrell, R., Fusaro, J., & Dougherty, E. (2000). Exploring the effectiveness of journal writing on learning social studies: A comparative study. Reading Psychology, 21(1), 1-11. doi:10.1080/027027100278310

De La Paz, S. (2005). Effects of historical reasoning instruction and writing strategy mastery in culturally and academically diverse middle school classrooms. Journal of Educational Psychology, 97(2), 139-156. doi:10.1037/0022-0663.97.2.139

De La Paz, S., & Felton, M. (2010). Reading and writing from multiple source documents in history: Effects of strategy instruction with low to average high school writers. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 35(3), 174-192. doi:10.1016/j.cedpsych.2010.03.001

De La Paz, S., & Wissinger, D. (2015). Effects of genre and content knowledge on historical thinking with academically diverse high school students. Journal of Experimental Education, 83(1), 110-129.

Dobao, A. (2012). Collaborative writing tasks in the L2 classroom: Comparing group, pair, and individual work. Journal of Second Language Writing, 21(1), 40-58. doi:10.1177/0013124512446221

Fernandez Dobao, A., & Blum, A. (2013). Collaborative writing in pairs and small groups: Learners’ attitudes and perceptions. System, 41(2), 365-378. doi:10.1016/j.system.2013.02.002

Guthrie, J. T. (2003). Concept-Oriented Reading Instruction: Practices of Teaching Reading for Understanding. In C. Snow & A. Sweet (Eds.), Reading for Understanding: Implications of RAND Report for Education. New York: Guilford.

Kaldenberg, E., Watt, S., & Therrien, W. (2015). Reading instruction in science for students with learning disabilities: A meta-analysis. Learning Disability Quarterly, 38(3), 160-173. doi:10.1177/0731948714550204

McCulley, L., & Osman, D. (2015). Effects of reading instruction on learning outcomes in social studies: A synthesis of quantitative research. Journal of Social Studies Research, 39(4), 183-195. doi:10.1016/j.jssr.2015.06.002

Monte-Sano, C. (2008). Qualities of historical writing instruction: A comparative case study of two teachers’ practices. American Educational Research Journal, 45(4), 1045-1079.

Monte-Sano, C. (2011). Beyond reading comprehension and summary: Learning to read and write in history by focusing on evidence, perspective, and interpretation. Curriculum Inquiry, 41(2), 212-249.

Monte-Sano, C., De La Paz, S., & Felton, M. (2014). Implementing a disciplinary literacy curriculum for US History: Learning from expert middle school teachers in diverse classrooms. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 46(4), 540-575.

Reynolds, G., & Perin, D. (2009). A comparison of text structure and self-regulated writing strategies for composing from sources by middle school students. Reading Psychology, 30(3), 265-300.

Sielaff, C., & Washburn, E. (2015). The PEA strategy: One teacher’s approach to integrating writing in the social studies classroom. Social Studies, 106(4), 178-185. doi:10.1080/00377996.2015.1043616

Snow, C., Lawrence, J., & White, C. (2009). Generating knowledge of academic language among urban middle school students. Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness, 2(4), 325-344. doi:10.1080/19345740903167042121.

Storch, N. (2005). Collaborative writing: Product, process, and students’ reflections. Journal of Second Language Writing, 14(3), 153-173.

Storch, N., & Wigglesworth, G. (2007). Writing tasks: The effects of collaboration. In M. Garcia Mayo (Ed.), Investigating tasks in formal language learning (pp. 157-177). Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.

Swanson, E., Wanzek, J., Vaughn, S., Roberts, G., & Fall, A. (2015). Improving reading comprehension and social studies knowledge among middle school students with disabilities. Exceptional Children, 81(4), 426-442.

Vaughn, S., Swanson, E., Roberts, G., Wanzek, J., Stillman-Spisak, S., Solis, M., & Simmons, D. (2013). Improving reading comprehension and social studies knowledge in middle school. Reading Research Quarterly, 48(1), 77-93. doi:10.1002/rrq.039

Wanzek, J., Swanson, E., Roberts, G., Vaughn, S., & Kent, S. (2015). Promoting acceleration of comprehension and content through text in high school social studies classes. Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness, 8(2), 169-188. doi:10.1080/19345747.2014.906011123

Wiley, J., & Voss, J. (1999). Constructing arguments from multiple sources: Tasks that promote understanding and not just memory for text. Journal of Educational Psychology, 91(2), 301-311. doi: 10.1037/0022-0663.91.2.301

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"Writing is thinking on paper. " — William Zinsser