Why Literacy Educators Need to be Advocates for Science and Social Studies Education


by Guest Blogger Nell Duke, Professor at the University of Michigan, Author, and 2016 Literacy for All Conference Keynote Speaker

Time devoted to science and social studies in elementary schools has been on the decline for some time (e.g., Blank, 2013; Center on Education Policy, 2008; Heafner & Fitchett, 2012). As citizens, there is little doubt that we should be concerned about this, but in this post, I argue that we should also be concerned about it as literacy educators.

Consider the following passage (Tierney & Pearson, 1981):

The batsmen were merciless against the bowlers. The bowlers placed their men in slips and covers. But to no avail. The batsmen hit one four after another with an occasional six. Not once did a ball look like it would hit their stumps or be caught.

Many readers, including myself, find this passage difficult to comprehend. But if you know the game of cricket, I’m told it is quite easy to understand. This example illustrates the important role that knowledge plays in reading comprehension. In a classic study, Recht and Leslie (1988) studied seventh and eighth graders who were either good or poor readers as determined by a standardized test of comprehension achievement. Some of the students in each group were knowledgeable about the game of baseball; others were not. All students were asked to read a passage that described a half inning of a baseball game and then to reenact and describe what they read. The researchers found that poor readers with high knowledge of baseball actually displayed better comprehension than good readers with low knowledge of baseball—such was the power of relevant prior knowledge.

Having knowledge related to a text seems to support text comprehension in a number of ways, such as through facilitating recognition of words, processing of known vocabulary, handling of existing vocabulary, and generation of inferences (e.g., Elleman, Lindo, Morphy, & Compton, 2009; Fincher-Kiefer, 1992; Kaefer, Neuman, & Pinkham, 2015; Priebe, Keenan, & Miller, 2011). As probably does not surprise you, general knowledge is a strong predictor of later comprehension achievement (e.g., Grissmer, Grimm, Aiyer, Murrah, & Steele, 2010). One study even found that students learned a new comprehension strategy better when it was taught in the context of texts for which they had a lot of relevant content knowledge (Gaultney, 1995).

As literacy educators, one of our major goals is to support comprehension development—and content knowledge supports comprehension development. Therefore, we should be advocates for considerable attention to content area education. We should resist the temptation to think that more time on literacy is always better. That may be true in the short term, but in the long term it could backfire. Students’ comprehension may suffer from a lack of content knowledge relevant to the texts they are reading. The problem may be particularly acute for students who rely heavily on school to develop content knowledge relevant to the texts they encounter in school.

Fortunately, we do not have to choose between attention to literacy and attention to content area education. Through content-rich approaches to literacy education and integrating literacy in science and social studies, we can support development of literacy both directly and through content knowledge-building (e.g., Guthrie, McRae, & Klauda, 2007; Strachan, 2015). In other words, by advocating for science and social studies, we can have our cake and eat it too. Let’s eat up!

Nell Duke is speaking at the Literacy for All Conference on:

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

8:30 a.m. – 10:00 a.m.- Emphasizing Engagement: Why Literacy Engagement is More Important Than Ever and What We Can Do About It (Grades K-8)

10:15 a.m. – 11:45 a.m.- Projects for the Primary Grades (Grades K-2)


Blank, R. K. (2013), Science instructional time is declining in elementary schools: What are the implications for student achievement and closing the gap? Science Education, 97, 830–847. doi:10.1002/sce.21078

Center on Education Policy. (2008). Instructional time in elementary schools: A closer look at changes for specific subjects. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from http://www.cep-dc.org/publications/index.cfm?selectedYear=2008.

Elleman, A. M., Lindo, E. J., Morphy, P., & Compton, D. L. (2009). The impact of vocabulary instruction on passage-level comprehension of school-age children: A meta-analysis. Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness, 2(1), 1–44. http://doi.org/10.1080/19345740802539200

Fincher-Kiefer, R. (1992). The role of prior knowledge in inferential processing. Journal of Research in Reading, 15(1), 12–27. http://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9817.1992.tb00018.x

Gaultney, J. F. (1995). The effect of prior knowledge and metacognition on the acquisition of a reading comprehension strategy. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 59, 142–163. http://doi.org/10.1006/jecp.1995.1006

Guthrie, J. T., McRae, A., & Klauda, S. L. (2007). Contributions of Concept-Oriented Reading Instruction to knowledge about interventions for motivations in reading. Educational Psychologist, 42, 237–250.

Grissmer, D., Grimm, K. J., Aiyer, S. M., Murrah, W. M., & Steele, J. S. (2010). Fine motor skills and early comprehension of the world: Two new school readiness indicators. Developmental Psychology, 46(5), 1008–1017. http://doi.org/10.1037/a0020104

Heafner, T. L., & Fitchett, P. G. (2012). Tipping the scales: National trends of declining social studies instructional time in elementary schools. Journal of Social Studies Research, 36(2), 190-215.

Kaefer, T., Neuman, S. B., & Pinkham, A. M. (2015). Pre-existing background knowledge influences socioeconomic differences in preschoolers’ word learning and comprehension. Reading Psychology, 36, 203–231.

Priebe, S. J., Keenan, J. M., & Miller, A. C. (2012). How prior knowledge affects word identification and comprehension. Reading and Writing, 25, 131-149. doi:10.1007/s11145-010-9260-0

Recht, D. R., & Leslie, L. (1988). Effect of prior knowledge on good and poor readers’ memory of text. Journal of Educational Psychology, 80(1), 16–20. http://doi.org/10.1037/0022-0663.80.1.16

Strachan, S. L. (2015). Kindergarten students’ social studies and content literacy learning from interactive read-alouds. The Journal of Social Studies Research, 39, 207–223.

Tierney, R. J., & Pearson, P. D. (1981). Learning to learn from text: A framework for improving classroom practice (No. 30). In E. K. Dishner, J. Readance, & T. Bean (Eds.), Reading in the content areas: Improving classroom practice (pp. 1–38). Dubuque IA: Kendall Hunt.

For a number of additional resources related to advocating for science, social studies, and arts education, see http://knowledgematterscampaign.org/.

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