ERIC Identifier: ED274582
Publication Date: 1986-09-00
Author: Hoge, John D.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse for
Social Studies/Social Science Education Bloomington IN.
Improving the Use of Elementary Social Studies Textbooks. ERIC
Digest No. 33.
Basal textbooks are a common means of instruction in elementary social
studies classrooms. They are useful sources of knowledge and may serve as a core
for social studies instruction. However, even the best textbook is a limited
teaching tool which must be used in combination with other media and materials
to adequately address important learning objectives pertaining to cognitive
skills and civic participation. Teachers who depend only on textbooks are likely
to deprive students of important learning experiences.
This digest discusses (1) how social studies textbooks are used by elementary
teachers, (2) problems children have in reading textbooks, and (3) procedures
for improving textbook use in elementary social studies.
HOW ARE SOCIAL STUDIES TEXTBOOKS USED BY MOST ELEMENTARY TEACHERS?
The hardcover basal textbook dominates teaching and learning in elementary
social studies classes (Patrick and Hawke 1982). Too often, social studies
instruction involves reading assignments in a single textbook. As with math,
science, and health, there is a temptation to allow the textbook to define the
curriculum, with the flow of topics determined by consecutive pages.
Many teachers have found ways to expand upon the content of the textbook,
adding films, tradebooks, and a variety of projects to help break the monotony
of daily use and maintain student interest. In recent years, however, there has
been an increase in "textbook alone" instruction, as reductions in school
budgets have depleted the supply of up-to-date supplementary materials, and
teachers have begun to react to pressures of the back-to-basics movement,
state-wide testing, and criticisms of all but the most traditional teaching
Much has been written about difficulties young students have in reading
social studies textbooks (Metcalf 1980; Rowell 1978; Anderson and Armbruster
1984). The following section summarizes some of these problems.
WHAT PROBLEMS DO CHILDREN HAVE IN READING SOCIAL STUDIES TEXTBOOKS?
Two problems young children have in reading elementary social studies
textbooks stem from lack of experiential background and complex social studies
content. Most teachers are aware of these problems, but may not know how to
Concerning adequate experiential background, students who have traveled or
lived in many different places are often the students most genuinely interested
in social studies. Students who have never left their neighborhood or local
community may see little point in learning about distant places. Similarly,
students without a sense of personal or family history may find it difficult to
relate to the historical settings represented in their textbooks.
The inherent difficulty of social studies content stems mainly from the heavy
technical concept load of social studies textbook passages. Technical concepts
are one- or two-word "ideas" which have specialized meaning in social studies
(for example: government, delta, immigrants, interdependence, economy,
constitution, federal, cotton belt, division of labor, and political party).
These words may have little or no meaning for students unless specific
vocabulary or concept development lessons precede their first encounter with
such terms. Yet basal social studies textbooks are notorious for heavy technical
concept load and "thin" discussion of topics, making even the most careful
independent reading low in potential benefit.
Hard-to-pronounce names of cities, faraway countries, and foreign language
names contribute to the complexity of textbook content. Many adult readers are
stopped by these words, yet social studies is neither complete nor accurate
Add to the above problems frequent references to long periods of time or huge
distances, and it becomes even more apparent why children have trouble learning
from their social studies textbooks. What must a child of 9 or 10 think when the
book says, "Our country was founded over 200 years ago"--or perhaps worse,
"long, long ago"? What do expressions such as "far to the north," or "over a
thousand miles to the east," mean to students who are not sure which direction
is which and who have never traveled further than across the state or out of
WHAT CAN BE DONE ABOUT THESE PROBLEMS?
Effective teaching and learning depend upon clarity of objectives. Thus, the
first step in helping students overcome textbook reading problems is for
teachers to determine what they want students to learn from a certain paragraph,
page, or section of the textbook. A helpful procedure is for the teacher to
review the children's edition of the textbook before reading the teacher's
guide. This helps a teacher to see the book as the child sees it, and puts the
teacher, not the guide, in charge of what will be learned from the lesson. The
teacher should pick up a copy of the students' book and ask himself or herself
the following questions: What should be learned from reading this page? What is
most important here? What facts are presented? What concepts are featured? How
are they handled? Findings should be matched with the information presented in
the teacher's guide. The teaching suggestions should be considered. Are they
helpful to students? Are they sufficient to convey the major concepts children
should understand from reading this page or section? Does the suggested approach
clearly address the reading problems students are likely to have with these
textbook passages? Once it is clear what facts should be remembered and which
concepts and main ideas form the central focus of the textbook passages, the
teacher is ready to decide on an effective textbook teaching plan.
To proceed, the teacher must (1) develop, albeit vicariously, the required
background of experience; (2) accommodate the varying reading skills of
students; (3) provide direct instructional help with locating places,
comprehending long periods of time, understanding technical concepts, and
pronouncing foreign-language names; and (4) select appropriate learning
activities which go beyond the first three measures (which support reading the
text). This last step will help students apply or extend the important content
of the lesson.
Experiential background should be built by firsthand and near firsthand
information derived from field trips, films, film strips, and video programs.
Guest speakers who can bring in photographs, slide shows, cultural artifacts, or
native foods may also help children gain the background needed to read with
understanding. Discussing study prints, displaying travel brochures, and setting
up a reading and reference table are other ways to develop the curiosity and
familiarity needed to begin reading with a sense of purpose.
Varying skill levels of students should be accommodated much as they are
during reading period. The class should be split into reading groups. Teachers
should (1) prepare study guides to help students identify important facts,
concepts, and main ideas; (2) create a reading table where slower readers may
use headphones and read along as they listen to prerecorded textbook passages
read by the teacher, an aide, or a capable older student; (3) and ask more able
students to translate the content of the text into their own words and share
these passages with classmates, or allow students to read with more capable
Teachers should use textbook maps, wall maps, and globes to locate places
emphasized in reading assignments. They should note the relative location of a
place ("Where is it in relation to . . . ? How far is it from . . . ? How long
would it take to get there from here?"). Students should be asked additional
questions about latitude, longitude, elevation, and climate. This information
should then be related to the local setting so that the students have a concrete
referent for comparison.
Explanations of time are also important to student understanding of textbook
content. Teachers should depict the number of generations required to span the
years back to the period being studied and show this graphically with cut-out
paper figures. Time lines should be constructed to show graphically the
chronological relationship of events. Students may realize how long ago
something was by gaining information about the conditions of life that existed
then, or by placing major inventions and achievements on a time line extending
back to the event.
Teachers can form a poster-size classroom social studies glossary to deal
with difficult technical concepts and key foreign names. Academically able
students can be instructed to conduct independent investigations of main ideas
and important concepts, and present reports to the class to enrich understanding
prior to textbook reading. Teachers should look up key terms in dictionaries or
encyclopedias, and discuss the definitions. They should use established concept
learning strategies to directly teach new concepts.
Finally, teachers should tell students why they are reading the textbook and
what they should gain from it. Teachers should specify facts for students to
locate, record, or remember. Main ideas and key words should be stressed, and
students should locate important passages and be able to interpret, in their own
words, what the textbook says. Students should write and discuss their
interpretations of main ideas and support their conclusions with additional
references (Crowe and Youga 1986).
Effective teachers challenge students to apply or extend main ideas,
concepts, and skills they have gained from textbook lessons. By doing so,
students see how their reading relates to life outside the textbook. Students
who read about early American pioneers might investigate modern-day pioneers in
Alaska or the Australian outback. A reading on city government might be followed
by an investigation of local government agencies to see if they match ideas in
the text. If students are encouraged to use and extend the concepts, facts, and
main ideas in textbooks, they will find social studies more interesting and
Grahm (1986) and others conclude that the modern basal social studies
textbook has much to offer as an instructional resource if the teacher uses it
wisely. Teachers are in control of how they use textbooks. Having students read
the textbook, day after day, with little pre-reading preparation and no
meaningful follow-up is inadequate teaching practice. Good reading instruction
and solid social studies practice go hand-in-hand.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Anderson, Thomas H. and Bonnie B. Armbruster. "Content Area Textbooks." In
LEARNING TO READ IN AMERICAN SCHOOLS, edited by Richard C. Anderson and others.
Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1984.
Armbruster, Bonnie B. and Beth H. Gudbrandsen. READING COMPREHENSION
INSTRUCTION IN SOCIAL STUDIES PROGRAMS, OR, ON MAKING MOBILES OUT OF SOAPSUDS.
TECHNICAL REPORT NO. 39. Urbana: Center for the Study of Reading at the
University of Illinois, 1984. ED 240 532.
Crowe, Douglas and Janet Youga. "Using Writing as a Tool for Learning
Economics." THE JOURNAL OF ECONOMIC EDUCATION 17 (1986): 218-222.
Grahm, Alma. "Elementary Social Studies Texts: An Author-Editor's Point of
View." SOCIAL EDUCATION 50 (1986): 54-55.
Metcalf, Fay. "The Textbook as a Teaching Tool." SOCIAL EDUCATION 44 (1980):
Patrick, John J. and Sharryl Davis Hawke. "Social Studies Curriculum
Materials." In THE CURRENT STATE OF SOCIAL STUDIES: A REPORT OF PROJECT SPAN,
edited by Project SPAN Staff. Boulder, CO: Social Science Education Consortium,
1982. ED 216 199.
Patton, William E., Editor. IMPROVING THE USE OF SOCIAL STUDIES TEXTBOOKS.
Washington, DC: National Council for the Social Studies, 1980. ED 189 021.
Rowell, C. Glennon. "Vocabulary Development in the Social Studies." SOCIAL
EDUCATION 42 (1978): 10-14.
Woodward, Arthur, David L. Elliott and Kathleen Carter Nagel. "Beyond
Textbooks in Elementary Social Studies." SOCIAL EDUCATION 50 (1986): 50-53.