Over the past few years there has been increasing attention paid to “the science of reading.” A few journalists (including our friend and advisor Natalie Wexler) have been pointing out that too many American kids don’t learn to read or don’t learn to read well, because too many elementary schools ignore what science has proven about how we learn to read. In this post I’ll give a super-short summary of that science, explain why high quality history teaching is crucial to building literacy, and give an example of how we incorporated literacy instruction in our fourth grade unit on the Renaissance. The Four Question Method works really well in elementary school, and it may be even more crucial there than at any other grades.

‘Reading” Means Sounding Out Words, and Knowing What They Mean

When we say that someone “reads well” we mean that they have two distinct abilities: they can sound out words written on a page (this is called “decoding”), and they know what those words mean. We’ve all probably experienced the difference between these abilities when we encountered text that we could decode but didn’t really understand. For adult readers of this blog, that experience may have come when reading a technical manual or a challenging article in a college class. But students with small vocabularies have that experience often.

If we think of reading as a discrete academic skill, separate from history or science, we might try to address this problem by drilling students on vocabulary words. But as Wexler and others have explained, “having a big vocabulary” is just a synonym for “knowing things.” In order to become good readers, students need to learn background knowledge about the world. It’s that knowledge that enables them to understand words that they encounter in the texts that they read. 

Not surprisingly, learning history is an excellent way to build background knowledge about the world, and thus to improve students’ vocabulary. This would seem to be just common sense, and a recent longitudinal study confirmed that increased instructional time in social studies in elementary grades is associated with increased reading ability. It turns out that social studies instruction makes students, especially those with low incomes and families where English is not spoken at home, better readers. 

OK, But How Do We Do That?

If social studies instruction makes elementary students better readers, we should invest in doing it well. In our work with elementary teachers we’ve found that most of the widely available social studies curriculum is either activity focused, and so doesn’t build background knowledge effectively, or uses limited pedagogy: kids read (or are read to) and answer questions about informational text. By contrast, the Four Question Method offers elementary teachers a way to build history knowledge (and thus vocabulary and literacy) in a dynamic and engaging way.

We saw this happen in our recent curriculum pilot for a fourth grade unit on the Renaissance at Nashville Classical Charter School. The unit had ten days of instruction, forty-five minutes a day, and a summative assessment on day eleven. Our student reference sheet for the unit included ten “tier two” vocabulary words: they were specific to the unit, but also have broader meanings and are not extremely common. Knowing what tier two words like these mean makes kids better readers. 

Here is our list of ten words and the definitions we provided: 

Medieval: Relating to the “Middle Ages,” from about 500 to 1500 C.E.

Merchant: Someone who makes money buying and selling things, rather than from farming crops.

Banker: Someone who charges a fee to loan money to other people.

Patron: Someone who gives money to an artist to support their work.

Disciple: One of the twelve followers of Jesus, or anyone who follows a teacher very closely.

Chapel: A small church.

Anatomy: The study of the inside parts of the human body.

Boast: To talk with great pride about oneself, to brag.

Printing Press: A machine that copies words by pressing type down on paper.

Thrive: To succeed greatly.

We think that students who learned these words as part of an engaging and demanding social studies unit will become better readers. We expect them to be more likely to understand phrases like “freedom of the press,” or “The Anatomy of a Scandal,” or “a disciple of John Dewey,” than students who have never encountered those words in a meaningful context. 

A commenter on our blog post describing our Renaissance unit wondered if we had cut too much reading out of the original curriculum materials. We did cut a lot of reading, and we honestly don’t know if just reading more history would improve literacy as much, more, or less than using the Four Question Method to actually think about history. But we believe that the kind of engaged student thinking required by the 4QM will improve student retention of the historical content — which is the same thing as saying it will build student vocabulary. And that’s a good thing for future citizens, and future readers.