Teaching Disciplinary Literacy In Social Studies

Disciplinary literacy and content area literacy have been buzz words around education.  It’s hard to pick apart the two but I have been trying to focus on teaching disciplinary literacy, focusing on specific skills to read in different subject areas.  I have found some pros and cons.


Number one, I am not a scientist.  I can make educated guesses about what it means to read science texts in a specific science way, but I sort of feel like I am shooting in the dark.

I find it easier to teach disciplinary writing than reading!  Especially since a lot of our reading in science and social studies is the teacher reading aloud to the students.


Students connect with the texts when they think of themselves as reading like a historian or a scientist.

I feel like I am giving students a much needed skill set as we are practicing reading.

Does anyone have any solutions for my cons?

Below is a link that I used to jump in and look at primary sources during social studies.  Our NC Social Studies Standard says that we are to compare various interpretations of the same time period using different primary sources such as photographs.

Doing a little research, I stumbled upon this great lesson put together by the Tenement Museum.  The lesson has students looking at primary sources as clues about a person’s life.  They look at a postcard, a ship manifest, a photo of a building, and a family photograph.  The lesson provides probing questions to get the students to read these sources like historians.

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After seeing this lesson I feel like I have a better understanding of how to construct my own lesson.  As a teacher, sometimes just like students, we need to see some appropriate examples to help us run with our own creativity!

I am also a fan of using the NC Museum of History artifact boxes.  You can fill out a request form at the link above.  These are really great to have students explore artifacts and gather information about people during a certain time period in history!  They also come with probing questions, lesson plans, and recording sheets.

I have found that it is much easier to teach a child at the early elementary level to “read like a historian” when they are analyzing and studying primary sources.  First off, that’s what actual historians do and second off they are figuring out the facts for themselves from the actual source.  Using critical literacy while reading secondary sources is very important and I feel that it does play a role in “reading like a historian.”  When we read secondary sources for research, I am constantly trying to get kids to understand that we are only reading one side of the story.  Often times I try to ask questions like, whose story are we missing.  Some students are very intuitive to this and catch on very quickly.  Today in fact we were learning about ancestors and we watched a clip about explorers and settlers and I had a student say “and yes sometimes settlers took over land even when people already lived there.”  I told the child “YES! and that poses a little bit of a problem doesn’t it?”  The best part is that the student responded “that’s a BIG problem if you ask me.”  Critical literacy!

For me this is a growing process and I am certainly trying to figure out what this looks like in other areas of social studies besides history.  If you know of any additional resources to use to find primary source lessons, please leave a comment alone.

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