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.


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 practices.

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.


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 overcome them.

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 without them.

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 town?


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 "buddies."

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 meaningful.

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.


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): 84-85.

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.

Library Reference Search

Please note that this site is privately owned and is in no way related to any Federal agency or ERIC unit.  Further, this site is using a privately owned and located server. This is NOT a government sponsored or government sanctioned site. ERIC is a Service Mark of the U.S. Government. This site exists to provide the text of the public domain ERIC Documents previously produced by ERIC.  No new content will ever appear here that would in any way challenge the ERIC Service Mark of the U.S. Government.

Popular Pages

More Info