Integrating geography with reading instruction works well for ELLs

Classmates help to each other to find something at the globeDuring the incredibly shrinking school day, teachers are finding less and less time for subjects such as history, social studies and geography because the highest priority in many schools is to build students’ literacy and math skills.

To offset this trend, schools have been integrating the curriculum, weaving instruction of history, social studies or geography into building of math and reading skills. Not only does this make more efficient use of the school day, but for many students, an integrated curriculum has been found to enhance and increase learning.

But, what about English Language Learners (ELLs)? Is the same true for them? Or is piggy-backing one subject on another too overwhelming and even detrimental to learning?

A recent study on the integration of geography with a reading curriculum for grades 3-5 and 7-8 concludes that there are similar benefits for ELL students. The tri-state study published in the journal, International Research in Geographical and Environmental Education, found that offering geography education to ELLs not only promotes the discipline but also improves reading comprehension.

“Our study indicates that the reading achievement of students who were taught using GeoLiteracy for ELLs—an integrated curriculum that teaches geography while reinforcing reading skills—either improved significantly or simply did not decline,” the researchers write. “These findings resonate with reading researchers who have advocated the need for teaching content in order to improve reading comprehension.”

The “GeoLiteracy” curriculum

GeoLiteracy is a K-8 curriculum developed by the Arizona Geographic Alliance (AZGA) with a grant from the National Geographic Education Foundation with support from the Arizona Department of Education and the Arizona State University. The program includes 85 lesson plans that address all US national geography standards, a quarter of which address environmental issues.

In response to concerns about meeting the needs of ELLs, AZGA obtained another grant to revise the GeoLiteracy lessons to adhere to the Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol (SIOP). The program includes methodology and materials aimed at meeting the academic and language needs of the growing ELL population.

The GeoLiteracy program was used in grades 3-5 and grades 7-8. (Not enough 6th grade teachers volunteered.) The number of students within each grade ranged from 223 to 387 (total was 1431). Between 28% and 39% of students were classified as English Language Learners (n= 472).

Related resource: Provide Differentiated Instruction to ELL Students

23 schools in 3 states

Twenty-three schools in 3 states, Indiana, Arizona and Oklahoma, participated in the study. Teachers were given a limited choice of lessons—6 lessons for grade 3, 10 lessons for grades 4 and 5, and 13 lessons for 6-8.

An intervention group of 35 teachers taught 3-5 lessons over a 3-5 month period (Arizona and Oklahoma teachers taught the lessons for 5 months while Indiana teachers taught the lessons for 3 months.) Each lesson required 2-3 class periods, occasionally more if the teacher contributed additional materials and activities.

All of the lessons in the study emphasized the following reading skills: cause and effect, summarizing, main idea, sequencing, drawing conclusions and inferences, following directions and reading/interpreting graphic displays. Each lesson has explicit performance objectives and is taught with a specific set of skill-building tasks under the SIOP framework, with formative assessments embedded within the lessons.

Reading pretests and posttests were administered to all students. For the tests, students read a passage of 3-11 paragraphs and responded to 10 selected-response questions. The tests did not assess student knowledge of geography.

GeoLiteracy was associated with significantly higher performance for ELL students in grade 8. No significant differences were found in grades 3, 4 or 7. However, achievement of students in those grades still increased from pretest to posttest, with ELLs achieving greater gains than non-ELLs, the researchers write.

“Not only is there no valid reason for eliminating the teaching of geography in order to spend more time teaching reading skills to ELLs, the evidence indicates that geography should be a core part of learning English,” according to the study.

“These results send a clear signal to US school administrators that teaching geography will not result in a decline in reading test scores, where curriculum is properly integrated.”

“Linking geography to reading and English language learners’ achievement in US elementary and middle school classrooms,” by Elizabeth Hinde et al, International Research in Geographical and Environmental Education, Volume 20, Number 1, February 2011, pps. 47-63.

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