In Northern Utah, four fifth-grade teachers and a university reading professor conducted a classroom experiment using historical novels to integrate social studies content with reading skills. Inspired by previous studies, John A. Smith and Jay A. Monson, Utah State University/Logan, and Forothy Dobson, Edith Bowen Laboratory School, developed a program to test whether a unified approach using historical fiction and biographies to teach social studies concepts and reading skills would enhance learning in both content areas.
Teachers in experimental classes chose three novels related to the fifth grade U.S. history curriculum: The Witch of Blackbird Pond (Elizabeth G. Speare), Johnny Tremain (Esther Forbes), and The Tamarack Tree (Patricia Clapp). Class sets of each novel were purchased to accommodate both group and individualized instruction.
Teachers continued to use the social studies text in combination with these novels. Working together, the teachers divided each novel into instructional segments and selected thematic, content and literary concepts to highlight. They determined what background information would be helpful and developed whole-class, small-group and individual enrichment activities for each segment.
The reading of each novel segment was preceded by an introduction to important background information and concepts from the social studies text and other reference materials. Pre-reading activities also included discussion led by the teacher, vocabulary development and writing assignments.
A whole-class activity
Reading the novel segments was a whole-class activity. Students enjoyed having the teacher read the section aloud while they followed along in their own books. Occasionally, students were asked to read aloud or were assigned a portion to read silently. Students often reread portions of the novels in order to complete various activities.
Enrichment activities included creative assignments, such as writing character journals or letters, drawing portraits of characters, or acting out scenes. Language activities included, for example, identifying descriptive images in the novels and learning how to revise written work. Content activities focused attention on learning historical concepts through oral reports, debates, guest speakers and comparisons with contemporary life.
To evaluate the effectiveness of the project, students were orally asked three open-ended questions that pertained to the eras of U.S. history covered in the three novels. To elicit more information, each question was followed by several related questions. Students in both experimental classrooms and control classrooms were asked these same questions at the beginning and end of the school year. Their answers were tape-recorded, transcribed and evaluated using a template that categorized students’ responses.
The data collected revealed that students in the experimental classrooms recalled approximately 60 percent more information than students in control classrooms. Students who read historical novels in the unified reading/social studies project recalled more historical details and more main ideas as well as a greater total amount of historical information than students whose teachers used basal readers and social studies books and taught the two areas separately.
Students were also surveyed to determine their feelings about the project. These fifth graders reported that they would much rather read full-length historical novels than continue in a basal reading program. They suggested, however, that the program could be improved by offering a variety of novels about a time period and by incorporating more discussion and enrichment activities.
Students were most enthusiastic about learning the nature of everyday life during wartime. Teachers concluded that combining reading and social studies curricula in this way enabled students to more thoroughly enjoy learning about U.S. history. They also reported that the whole-class approach seemed to unify classes, enabling slower and faster readers to participate together.
Editor’s Note: Reading-achievement gains in control and experimental classes were not reported.
“A Case Study on Integrating History and Reading Instruction Through Literature”, Social Education, December 1992, Volume 56, Number 7, pp. 370-375.
Published in ERN March/April 1993, Volume 6, Number 2.