ERIC Identifier: ED285797
Publication Date: 1987-03-00
Author: McGowan, Thomas M.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse for
Social Studies/Social Science Education Bloomington IN.
Children's Fiction as a Source for Social Studies
Skill-Building. ERIC Digest No. 37.
Educators wrestle twin dilemmas as they chart future directions for
social studies instruction in the elementary grades. First, social studies has
been charged with promoting the skills of informed citizenship. Yet, evidence
suggests that young people lack these tools after years of social studies
instruction. Second, despite periodic reform efforts, traditional teaching
methods and curricular patterns persist in grades K-6. However, research
indicates that students do not like or value social studies primarily because of
the ways in which its content is taught and organized.
Fortunately, a new teaching strategy shows promise for resolving these
dilemmas. Activities generated from the content of children's fiction can
effectively build a variety of skills related to social studies. These
activities, moreover, engage children in learning experiences they find
enjoyable and meaningful. This ERIC Digest (1) defines the connection of social
studies to children's fiction, (2) argues for adopting this teaching strategy,
and (3) examines factors a teacher should consider before implementing it.
WHAT IS THE CONNECTION OF CHILDREN'S FICTION TO SKILL-BUILDING ACTIVITIES IN
THE SOCIAL STUDIES?
The strategy is a combination of two diverse elements. The first is the
mission of elementary social studies teaching. Social studies in grades K-6
consists of a series of experiences designed to transmit citizenship skills to
children. These competencies permit the effective citizen to make informed
decisions regarding society's future welfare. The competencies include a range
of skill areas, such as information processing, critical thinking, problem
solving, communication, spatial awareness, social interaction, and time
The second element is children's fiction. Though teachers refer to children's
fiction as "trade books," this term is misleading in the present context.
Commonly, any print materials other than textbooks are labeled "trade books."
Several types of nonfiction, long recognized as sources for social studies
instruction (such as biographies), can be included in this general category.
However, the teaching strategy under consideration uses children's fiction,
which is a type of trade book not typically viewed as a social studies resource.
Children's fiction refers specifically to storybooks, picture books, and books
of verse. Such works of the imagination as WHEN I WAS YOUNG IN THE MOUNTAINS,
GRETCHEN'S GRANDMA, and SIGN OF THE BEAVER exemplify this type of trade book.
These elements in tandem comprise this new teaching approach. Teachers use
the characters, plot, settings, themes, and relationships in selected works of
children's fiction to develop activities that promote citizenship skills. To
build spatial skills, for example, children might chart the route and compute
the distance traveled by the hero of ORPHAN FOR NEBRASKA.
To promote problem solving ability, young people might devise strategies to
resolve the dilemmas faced by characters in THE CAY.
experiences for children.
A note of caution should be sounded here. Storybooks suggest activities and
provide much of their content. Nowhere do they state procedures for teaching,
however. An activity's structure depends on teacher creativity and invention.
For the resourceful practitioner, the connection of children's fiction to social
studies skills offers tremendous possibilities.
WHY SHOULD TEACHERS USE CHILDREN'S FICTION TO BUILD SOCIAL STUDIES SKILLS?
Admittedly, using the content of children's fiction to convey social studies
skills to elementary children seems a marriage of incompatible partners. Picture
books seem whimsical; fanciful creatures are portrayed without purpose or
lasting meaning. Citizensip training, by contrast, seems academic and serious
with significant implications for individual growth and the common good.
After carefully considering this match, though, pairing social studies
skill-building and children's fiction makes great sense. Children build
citizenship skills in order to function productively in American society. To
contribute to the commonweal, young people learn lessons about the ways people
live. Students acquire skills to make effective social decisions and the
willingness to participate in the decision-making process.
The pages of children's fiction provide many opportunities for children to
model these citizenship qualities. Storybooks contain knowledge about people and
relationships. Their characters deal with emerging values, demonstrate the
effect of institutions on individual behavior, and relate with others in many
situations. Children's fiction, moreover, offers lessons about people from
various time periods and diverse cultural backgrounds.
Finally, storybooks provide examples of citizenship skills in practice.
Characters communicate with others, determine cause and effect, locate places on
maps, process information, and think reflectively. The characters of children's
fiction are concerned about and involved in their society. They confront choices
every citizen must make, and circumstances force them to make decisions that
influence the welfare of others. Far from a mismatch, citizenship skill-building
and children's fiction seem a natural combination. Storybooks are an ideal
source for activities that convey the tools of citizenship to children.
WHAT FACTORS SHOULD A SOCIAL STUDIES TEACHER CONSIDER WHEN USING CHILDREN'S
Believing that children's fiction can contribute activities that build
citizenship skills is a first step in making this teaching strategy an integral
part of an elementary social studies program. Yet, conviction alone will not
ensure successful implementation. The three factors cited below must be
seriously considered before this approach yields productive results.
Selecting quality children's fiction with citizenship implications is the
most important of these factors for two reasons. Quality sources avoid the
stereotyping and misinformation that limit effective citizenship. Quality books,
moreover, confront issues and values essential for meaningful citizenship
A quality work of children's fiction satisfies several criteria. First, the
book is developmentally appropriate. Its prose can be understood by its intended
audience. The author chooses settings, plot situations, and themes that are
relatively familiar to young readers. Second, an appropriate story or picture
book has lasting literary value. It is both meaningful and enjoyable to read.
The author writes and illustrates with particular attention to character
development, dialogue, plot, imagery, and message. Third, suitable children's
fiction presents the reader with valid information. The book portrays a
historical period with reasonable accuracy. The story depicts a way of life or
culture in "true-to-life" fashion. The author, moreover, shows no damaging bias.
Finally, a quality children's book offers the reader a message of lasting value.
The author examines an issue worthy of the reader's attention. The story
involves values and attitudes that a citizen must eventually assimilate.
Fortunately, many resources help teachers in the search for quality fiction
related to social studies for elementary students. The National Council for the
Social Studies, for example, annually provides an annotated bibliography of
"Notable Trade Books in the Field of Social Studies" in the April issue of
SOCIAL EDUCATION. Winners and finalists of national book awards (such as the
Newbery and Caldecott Medals) are also strong candidates for promoting social
studies skills. The International Reading Association publishes "Children's
Choices" in THE READING TEACHER's October issue. This list includes not only
quality fiction, but also books that children prefer to read. Finally, state and
regional organizations prepare lists of exemplary children's fiction that can
prove useful in the book selection process. Some examples of these resources are
the GOLDEN SOWER (Nebraska), YOUNG HOOSIER (Indiana), and the MARK TWAIN
A second factor in the successful use of this teaching strategy is the
process of delivering a book's content to children. Once the teachers select a
quality work of fiction, they must determine the best way to "tell" the story to
students. A book can be read silently by individual students or read
cooperatively by small groups of children. The most efficient delivery method,
however, is for the teacher to read the book aloud to the entire class. Before a
read-aloud session, the teacher should consider questions of mechanics (pacing,
inflection, voice clarity, etc.) and timing (when and where the story is best
read). The teacher should also decide whether supporting media or other reading
aids are appropriate. Jim Trelease's THE READ-ALOUD HANDBOOK offers valuable
guidance in determining the most effective delivery method.
Teachers must address a final factor to implement this strategy successfully.
They must consider what social studies skills and content will be taught using
children's fiction. As mentioned previously, teachers must generate
skill-building activities without direction from the books. The creative teacher
realizes that many citizenship skills can be reinforced using activities derived
from story and picture books. To promote spatial skills, a teacher might have
students map the small town in which a story occurred. Students could hone their
communication skills by comparing slang used in a story with comparable
colloquialisms from their own speech. Storybooks suggest many small group tasks
that build students' ability to interact constructively. To build information
processing skills, students could research antiquated items described in a work
of historical fiction. To boost critical thinking, students might draw
inferences regarding a character's motivation or predict what a particular
character might do in a hypothetical situation. Students could improve time
concept skills by finding cause-effect relationships among a story's major
Children's fiction also serves as a source of useful information for a number
of social studies curricular areas. Historical fiction captures an era and
conveys its essence to students as no textbook can. Story and picture books deal
sensitively with many issues covered in various content areas (racism, substance
abuse, the single-parent family, obeying the law, consumerism, etc.). Many works
of children's fiction explore global themes and examine lifestyles around the
world. Storybooks whose themes parallel the "Expanding Environments" approach to
curriculum organizations can be found in abundance (e.g. books about "self,"
books about "family," books about life in the "neighborhood," books about "our
In conclusion, the resourceful teacher generates activities that promote
soci.al studies skills from story and picture books. The books' content,
moreover, reinforces a variety of social studies curricular areas. Linking
children's fiction and skill-building activities offers great potential for
effective social studies instruction.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Billig, Edith. "Children's Literature as a Springboard to Content Areas." THE
READING TEACHER 30 (May 1977):855-859.
Fassler, Joan and Marjorie Graham Janis. "Books, Children, and Peace." SOCIAL
EDUCATION 49 (Sept. 1985):493-497.
Hennings, Dorothy G. "Reading Picture Storybooks in the Social Studies." THE
READING TEACHER 36 (Dec 1982):284-289.
Levstik, Linda S. "Literary Geography and Mapping" SOCIAL EDUCATION 49 (Jan.
McGown, Tom and Meredith McGowan. CHILDREN, LITERATURE, AND SOCIAL STUDIES:
ACTIVITIES FOR THE INTERMEDIATE GRADES. Omaha, NE: Special Literature Press,
Schreiber, Joan E. USING CHILDREN'S BOOKS IN SOCIAL STUDIES: EARLY CHILDHOOD
THROUGH PRIMARY GRADES. Washington, DC: National Council for the Social Studies,
1984. ED 241 404.
Stoddard, Ann H. TEACHING SOCIAL STUDIES IN THE PRIMARY GRADES WITH
CHILDREN'S LITERATURE. 1984. ED 251 848.