Here's Why I Wouldn't Teach Less Reading to Improve Social Studies

  • social studies amount of instruction
  • 26 September, 2020

This week the Thomas Fordham Institute released a new provocative report, Social Studies Instruction and Reading Comprehension. It says U.S. schools spend “excessive amounts of time” teaching the English Language Arts (ELA) and not enough time on social studies. In fact, they claim that this imbalance is lowering reading achievement. Kids will read better if they get less reading instruction and more social studies teaching. I’ve long argued for what they call out here as excessive. To reach the reading levels we aspire to, children need lots of reading and writing instruction (and, at least for English learners, lots of time for oral English work, as well). This report is out of step with what I believe to be the preponderance of evidence in the matter. 

Admittedly, parts of this report rankle… particularly when causal effects are attributed to correlational data (for those of you not fluent in statistics – this simply means they make claims not justified by the data they have analyzed). The real surprise for me – given the tenor and reasoning of the report – is that I fully agree with their conclusions.

These days people are so ideological that they go blind when something supports their view and can see nothing but the devils in the details for any disparate evidence. My goal is not to undermine the report, so much as to point out the flaws in its reasoning and inadequacy of its evidence. This is important because these kinds of “hooray for our side” claims plague pedagogy. These kinds of arguments do as much to warn people off of research as the flat-earth science deniers who champion any data that supports their view and pigsties any equivalent evidence that goes the other way.

I also hope to look at these data in some ways that might be more persuasive and useful for those who make these timing decisions.

My first problem with the report: Never send correlational data to do a causal study’s job (and certainly don’t claim that the use of multiple correlations makes it a causal study… oh, Doctor).

Despite the causal claims put forth in this report, such as “Increased instructional time in social studies—but not in ELA—is associated with improved reading ability”, the evidence just doesn’t match with the assertions.

What does that claim make it sound like they studied?

It sounds to me like they tested students’ reading and then had teachers either increase their reading instruction or their social studies teaching, or just kept things as they were, and then after a while, tested the kids again to find out how much reading improvement they could be attributed to these three approaches. It would even be better if they tested these students’ social studies knowledge to be sure the increases in reading were attributable to the learning that resulted from the extra social studies teaching. Such a study, if well implemented, would offer strong evidence for increasing social studies to make better readers.

But nothing of the sort was done here. Instead, teachers were surveyed about how much instruction their schools offered each year and in fifth grade the students were tested in reading. The students who scored best in reading tended to be enrolled in schools where teachers had reported more social studies instruction. These teachers did not even necessarily know how much instruction was provided in subjects that they didn’t teach, but they were encouraged to answer anyway. And, of course, no one measured the impact of increasing social studies teaching since no teacher increased the amount of social studies teaching.

The study neither observed any of this instruction, nor evaluated the learning that came from it. This investigation aimed to support the theories of E.D. Hirsch (and others) on the importance of cultural knowledge in reading comprehension. I’ve observed a lot of elementary social studies instruction in my time and I wouldn’t necessarily expect it to lead to big gains in “knowledge” (especially in the primary grades). But my skepticism aside, for this theory to be supported you’d need to show that the social studies teaching increased student knowledge about social studies, that the students simultaneously improved in reading, and that this social studies knowledge was instrumental in the reading improvements.

This research didn’t even review the passages used to measure reading comprehension to see how aligned the measure was with the social studies knowledge that was supposedly leading to these higher reading scores. If the reading test passages were about social studies content, then I wouldn’t be surprised if social studies instruction had an impact. But what if these were fictional passages or passages about science? Then what happens to these claims about the potency of social studies instruction?

A peculiar finding in this study was that there was no connection between the amount of ELA, math, science, the arts, physical education and student reading levels. They wave that problem off with the claim that cultural knowledge only comes from social studies and science classes and then claim that science vocabulary might be too technical to translate to improved reading. That interpretation not only requires some very uncomfortable gyrations (just reading it made my back hurt), but it certainly turns Hirsch’s theory to thin gruel (knowledge is important, but only knowledge about social studies). A simpler conclusion would be to recognize the greater likelihood of finding one meaningless significant correlation among seven independent comparisons.

Another possible explanation for these odd results would be that whatever constellation of conditions that led some schools to offer more social studies teaching were the same things that led to higher reading achievement. For instance, they noted that private schools had higher achievement and more social studies teaching. The researchers wisely corrected for some of these differences statistically, but there’s a reason why such correlational certainty often evaporates within the context of real policy implementation.

This is the kind of study that should encourage researchers to test out its recommendations; to experiment to see if the promised benefits result. Only then should policymakers take it as a call to action.

Some of the data here don’t add up either. According to the U.S. Department of Education the typical elementary school day – minus lunch and recess – is 6.5 hours or 390 minutes per day. The Fordham report separates the data by percentiles of amount of teaching that may have been provided in each subject. For example, they separated out the top 10% of schools that claimed to devote the greatest amount of time to each subject. A school was in that 90th percentile column if it offered about 2.5 hours per day of ELA. That same school may or may not have been included in the 90th percentile for social studies.

I found it interesting to imagine a highly academic school that managed to crack the top 10% for all the subjects. You know, a school with a lot of reading and writing, science, math, social studies, music, and so on. You’d think that such a school would be a rare beast. It seems like it may even be an impossibility, since all the subjects are competing for the same pool of time. More ELA time must, as these authors conclude, lead to less social studies time. Schools with lots of art would probably end up with little math or science.

Except that isn’t what you find.

If all schools delivered daily instructional amounts sufficient to place them at the 90th percentile for each and every subject, we’d still have about a 30 minutes of unaccounted time each school day (shifting these minutes to social studies alone would be enough move the bottom 10% to the top 90% in amounts of social studies teaching).

Even more interesting is to look at the median, that is the average school time allotments. Imagining schools that offer average amounts of ELA, math, science, social studies, and non-core subjects, would leave about an hour and a half of instructional time unaccounted for each day.

Instead of trying to steal time from reading and writing instruction for social studies, why not use a small amount of that lost time?

Think of it this way: Let’s imagine a family with a $40,000 annual income. They currently spend $10,000 on housing, $10,000 on food, and $5,000 each on healthcare and transportation. Food prices rise dramatically, and they need another $3,000 a year to cover the additional cost. Would you recommend that they stop paying rent or going to the doctor to make up for the shortfall? Or, would you wonder why it couldn’t come out of the $10,000 not being used for the family’s survival?  

Arguing for less time for language instruction to accommodate adequate time for social studies is kind of like that.

But isn’t it peculiar that the amount of ELA time didn’t correlate with reading achievement?

Indeed. And, yet, there are some possible reasons for that. One problem is the relative amount of variance associated with the different subject matters. In math and reading, relative variance was low (.19 and .18, respectively) probably because schools are explicit about how much time to spend on those subjects. Social studies and science get less attention, so they lead to a lot more variation in teacher practice which increases the possibility of finding a positive correlation with achievement (relative variance for social studies, science, and non-core subjects were .39, .40., and .44, respectively).

Even with that, however, there was certainly enough variation in the amount of ELA teaching to correlate with reading achievement. But here we have the same problem with reading that I mentioned earlier with social studies. We don’t know what this time was used for. In many schools, students’ independent reading time is counted as reading instruction (despite the poor results associated with that practice). The same happens with teacher book sharing, when teachers read chapter books to students. Such practices although enjoyable, perhaps, do little to improve reading achievement, though they do divert a substantial amount of instructional time. The same can be said for all of the worksheets and other activities used to keep kids busy while the teacher works with other small groups. None of that independent busywork has ever been found to do much for reading, and yet those activities often take up one-third to two-thirds of the instructional time.

There are literally thousands of studies showing the impact of increasing the amounts of instruction on student learning (e.g., preschool, full-day kindergarten, use of time during the school day, afterschool programs, summer programs, homework, days without substitute teachers, years with minimal “Act of God” days, mathmagenic processing, models of school achievement, academic press, and so on). There definitely are exceptions to this overwhelming pattern of results, but these are exceptions that prove the rule (such as unmonitored afterschool programs don't seem to improve achievement, but afterschool programs in which we know teaching is taking place do).

Amount of instruction matters, but what is being taught, how it is being taught, and how the learning is to be measured, all matter in this equation as well (though you can’t tell that from this report).

Frankly, as a profession, we’ve been careless in our safeguarding of children’s instructional time (grabbing at those exceptional cases when amount of teaching doesn’t matter and folkloric theories of motivation as excuses for not maximizing teaching and academic experience). Encouraging the kind of groveling between subjects encouraged in this study is not the way to fix that.

Instead, I argue for making every minute count; for providing substantial academic experience with the various arts, sciences, and humanities; and for teaching reading/language with rich literary and informational texts worth reading and remembering. I have no problem with 45 minutes per day of social studies. In fact, I like the idea. Fordham’s notion of how to get there is problematic, however.


Note: I want to thank Michael Petrilli for catching a couple of factual errors in the original blog posting. I have corrected those errors as of October 1, 2020 (omitting one erroneous sentence and replacing one relative standard deviation). Neither change required any revision of the point of view expressed in this blog, and, yet, accuracy matters. The responsibility for the original errors is mine alone.  


See what others have to say about this topic.

humss courses Oct 29, 2021 02:39 AM

I couldn’t refrain from commenting. Exceptionally well written and you've shared an exceptional article!!

Scott Geisler Sep 26, 2020 05:02 PM

Thanks for this, Tim. I liked that a study was done and that it showed correlation but of course you’re right, it’s not a rigorous study, it relies on self-reporting and the recommendations made - less time in reading, more in social studies - are loose and discomforting primarily because the researchers don’t even acknowledge the instructional “what” of the reading blocks they looked at. Or, did they even bother?

Still, I’m guilty of posting and retweeting the study for its positive conclusion. I have got to put more time into the caveats when doing this. Glad you did.

Effie Conway Sep 26, 2020 05:27 PM

Thank you for this. I would also argue that teaching English Language Arts using Social Studies texts will improve both subjects simultaneously. In my opinion, more cross-curricular instruction can only benefit ALL areas. We need to teach students to read in every other subject area, albeit with different purposes - which, when done well, significantly strengthens reading skills.

Renee Blackmon Sep 26, 2020 05:46 PM

Looks like your title misses the mark. Teaching more social studies is intended to improve reading. The title claims teaching less reading would improve social studies. It too bad that the argument for students to have an understanding of their roles in a democracy and an understanding of geography (not just locations) hasn't been enough to stop the increasing marginalization of social studies instruction in elementary. No wonder researchers are looking to other consequences, such as the effects on literacy. This is not the first study to show a correlation between background knowledge and comprehension.
Time for all those schools with mission statements about creating informed citizens to make a revision if giving 45 mins to social studies instruction is magnanimous.

Janice Sep 26, 2020 05:59 PM

I strongly suggest that teacher credentialing require basic statistical reasoning and research design.

Barbara Gottschalk Sep 26, 2020 05:59 PM

Like a previous commenter, I'm guilty of retweeting the study. I like your conclusion for teachers to make every minute count. You don't have to spend much time in elementary classrooms to notice lots of time is wasted.

Carol Sep 26, 2020 06:52 PM

The blog says: "It sounds to me like they tested students’ reading and then had teachers either increase their reading instruction or their social studies teaching, or just kept things as they were, and then after a while, tested the kids again to find out how much reading improvement they could be attributed to these three approaches." What if they had been teaching reading using leveled books but teaching social studies using grade level texts? Could this join the list for possible variables and reasons for improving reading scores---grade level history texts versus mixed-grade-levels text? In my experience, history text books are always on grade level; reading instruction in elementary school usually includes a time period of texts on different, often lower reading levels during guided reading. And as you pointed out, a weakness of the report is that we don't know how the reading time was used.

Pam Sep 26, 2020 07:21 PM

2 birds - 1 stone. Why can’t social studies content be taught during ELA time? Right now I have my 5th graders reading Esperanza Rising while also discussing human rights through the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They’re reading rich, grade level text and doing some fantastic writing on human rights and the book characters. This also leads us to talking/reading about the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression and Cesar Chavez. We’ll also read about Jackie Robinson integrating Major League Baseball. We’ll learn about the Constitution and the amendments that helped Americans with equality - all while working on crucial literacy skills. There simply isn’t enough hours in the school day. Careful, considerate instruction that maximizes time and grows students in all subject areas is, in my opinion, vital.

Tim Shanahan Sep 27, 2020 03:30 AM


That actually is what they are claiming, they believe that if we taught less ELA and more social studies kids would be better readers because of the social studies knowledge they would have.


John Sep 27, 2020 12:47 PM

Ok. So perhaps it’s simply a correlation. Good schools teach a lot of Social Studies and poor performing schools do less. Should we try and emulate good schools or bad schools? Do we think that good schools have administrators that don’t know what they are doing?

Because educational studies are so difficult, this allows the continual use of practices debunked by cognitive science and often suggests that we follow practices of low performing schools and replicate what simply Is not working.

Amy Geary Sep 27, 2020 04:14 PM

Thank you for your in-depth review of this study. Since I don't have access to the rich volumes of research being published, I truly appreciate reading commentaries that look at all angles.

The importance of building background knowledge and rich vocabulary is likely the premise of this particular research. Teaching social studies and reading comprehension at the same time can be achieved. In book, The Writing Revolution by Judith Hochman and Natalie Wexler, the authors provide explicit instructions on how teachers can bridge both reading comprehension and other disciplines through the writing connection. Maryann Wolfe encourages a breadth of reading in both fiction and nonfiction with instruction to develop critical thinkers. I cannot image teaching literacy simply on a diet of narrative text, esp. if I want my students to have a rich background in history, various cultures, and knowledge of current events.

Robert Stinton Sep 27, 2020 05:21 PM

The teaching of social studies and science is changing to a process approach. The wheel always reinvents itself. There are many programs including Teachers Pay Teachers, Mystery Science, to name a few that are not reading base. Reading content is a different species than reading literature.
Are there research studies that support what I think is the obvious--------that a strong reading content program in social studies and science supports higher reading scores in reading?
How much time do other countries spend on the CORE CURRICULUM---reading and math, then science and social studies?
PE? Music? Art? Choir etc. in the elementary school?

Timothy Shanahan Sep 27, 2020 10:22 PM


No, studies do not show that teaching reading in science and social studies lead to higher achievement than reading taught in literature. However, studies do show that it is possible to improve reading within a social studies or science environment.

However, we need to be careful. None of the research on knowledge and its role in comprehension (nor the theories of scholars like E.D. Hirsch) claims that social studies or science carry any special value. In other words, knowledge from literature is as useful as knowledge from SS or Science (and vice versa, of course).


Timothy Shanahan Sep 27, 2020 10:30 PM


Yes, it makes more sense to emulate the experience of successful schools than unsuccessful ones. But if you want to be successful you try to emulate those things that cause the difference. I'm sure I could play golf like Tiger Woods if I would just drive the same kind of car that he drives (much advertising is based on this idea)... I'd be emulating him, but I bet my golfing would get no better.

If you are serious about improving education, then you have to recognize that correlations do not prove causation and that emulating patterns that aren't actually effective leads to change rather than improvement. Private schools tend to be more successful than public schools, so parents should have to pay tuition for their children to attend public schools since that would emulate the more successful schools. You might think that is ridiculous, but think of all the public schools that required school uniforms for a while since it would make them more like private schools. It only matters if what you emulate is effective.


Donna Perry Sep 28, 2020 08:25 PM

I agree with Effie Conway to incorporate the LA into the SS content. However, I would add that the content teachers also need to have some training in reading so they can instruct in the most effective way. The publisher should also provide content and information with maximizing reading in mind. Teachers will sometimes have to use any resources to provide the information that needs to be taught so there is very little time to reflect on the best way for the students to maximize their reading.

Joan Sedita Sep 30, 2020 01:21 PM

As noted in several of the comments, teaching and practicing comprehension and vocabulary strategies during science and social studies instruction using related text, TOGETHER WITH using content area text (typically informational or argument in structure) during ELA instruction will support growth in both reading skills and background knowledge. However, many content area teachers have no training in how to embed reading (and writing about reading) into their classroom content instruction. The good news is that when they are given some explicit professional development, many teachers are able and willing to teach literacy using their content text.

John Sep 30, 2020 05:34 PM

Statistically speaking there are generally two other possible explanations for finding this correlation if there is no causality. The first, already mentioned, is reverse causality - good schools choose longer Social Studies programs. The second is that there is an omitted independent variable for which social studies is correlated and causes the correlation with test results. In this case, it could be parents with exceptional children choose schools with longer Social studies programs. These exceptional children then create better reading scores.

It seems to me the presence of the other subjects mitigates the effect of omitted variables - why would these parents choose longer social studies programs and not longer ELA programs? Or why would great schools not want longer ELA programs as well.

We would want to look at the actual reading test to see if the test is biased toward social studies - a good point raised.

Saying that, I believe these results should not be hastily dismissed. Likely, Working against This result funding significance is that there is a fair degree of correlated independent variables, but that would simply work against finding a significant result, rather than biasing coefficients.

Lucia Schroeder Oct 03, 2020 03:47 PM

Some of my "Best" teaching were the years I taught 5th and 6th grade Social Studies and Reading/Language Arts COMBINED! Much o our reading centered on Historical Fiction and Social Studies information. Our ELA included doing Readers Theater Plays about Famous Americans. Our Art involved back drops and programs for the plays, and travel brochures for visiting other countries and American History sites. For our Medieval History Unit [6th grade] students researched [i.e. read] from encyclopedias (now that would be online) and Art History books, then created life size characters such as peasants, Lords and Ladies, etc., using found objects on Large sheets of paper. For our World History, students worked in groups to research countries through out the world and created a mini museum with artifacts that resembled closely those of "their" country. They explained [ELA speech] their country as younger students viewed the museum. Did students learn Socal Studies - YES, and their reading scores greatly improved, Some students moved from Reading at Gr. 2.2 to grade 5.1 that year! Get rid of OR and integrate Social Studies with ELA.

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Here's Why I Wouldn't Teach Less Reading to Improve Social Studies


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