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An inquirED Blog

Background Knowledge and the Science of Reading

inquirED: States Go All in For Inquiry

What role does background knowledge play in building literacy skills? How can social studies instruction support the development of these skills through knowledge building? We asked these questions during our webinar, where we were joined by Nell K. Duke, Executive Director for the Center for Early Literacy Success at Stand for Children; Katherine Tarca, Director of Literacy and Humanities for Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education; Shanti Elangovan, CEO and Founder of inquirED; and Sarah Schwartz, a reporter for Education Week. Read below for a summary of our discussion.


Key Takeaways

  • Instruction that integrates ELA skills and social studies content is more robust and shows positive effects.

  • Social studies instruction should exist for the sake of social studies instruction; there is great value in the direct teaching of social studies education.

  • In order to teach social studies within the constraints of instructional minutes, one must be incredibly intentional about ensuring skills and content are woven together.

  • When building background knowledge, it is crucial to consider the lived experience and historical knowledge of the students in our classrooms.

Foundations: Literacy Skills and Background Knowledge

Opening the conversation, Sarah Schwartz shared an excellent analogy from Claude Goldenberg, professor emeritus at Stanford University, referring to fundamental literacy skills as the foundation of the house: without those important skills, the house would not stand.

Throughout the webinar, panelists agreed on the need for these foundational skills: phonics, spelling, and mechanics instruction. They also emphasized the importance of building knowledge upon that foundation. Schwartz explained how building background knowledge was “part of the house that’s built upon that foundation, and research shows us that background knowledge plays a big role in reading comprehension.”

As Katherine Tarca shared later in the webinar, “we should also acknowledge the dual benefit of learning that occurs in social studies, civics, history, the arts, sciences; they all build students’ base, [and this] translates to enhanced abilities in reading and writing. That benefit is real.” Nell K. Duke expressed agreement and emphasized the importance of background knowledge and how we know that young people write better when they know more about the topic.

A Seat at the Table for Elementary Social Studies

A major takeaway from the discussion focused on the importance of social studies for the sake of social studies in the elementary grades. Panelists also emphasized the importance of ensuring that the voices of social studies experts and researchers shape curriculum development.

Schwartz asked Duke to clarify the difference between integrated instruction and a knowledge-building ELA program. Duke explained:

...a knowledge-building English Language Arts program may include some science and social studies as well as reading instruction…but we really shouldn't have English language, arts, curriculum developers deciding all of the science and social studies that gets taught in elementary classrooms. We need science and social studies researchers and experts at the table, determining the science and social studies that gets taught.”

Tarca and Shanti Elangovan concurred and further explained how a student would receive a different type of instruction regarding primary source analysis in an ELA curriculum than they would in high-quality social studies instruction.

Panelists emphasized that while there is nothing wrong with integrating social studies or science into ELA, it does not substitute for having parts of the instructional day driven by direct social studies instruction, with literacy skills integrated. Elangovan explained,

“It’s important to teach social studies for the sake of teaching social studies,” tying in connections to the critical need for democracy and inquiry in our classrooms, some of which can only be authentically driven from a social studies instructional lens.

Finding the Time for Elementary Social Studies

Acknowledging the time pressure that many teachers feel to “fit it all in,” Schwartz asked the panelists how they would recommend navigating these time challenges. Tarca shared that “some of the most successful approaches I've seen have time held sacred for discipline-specific content, specific work in science, in social studies.” Tarca also named a common and disappointing mindset she encounters in regard to social studies minutes: “At least they’re getting a taste of it…at least they’re getting exposed to it.” Combatting this mindset was something many in the chat resonated with, as one participant shared, “Agreed! It's hard when we have huge requirements for Reading/Phonics to fit in SS. It's a daily struggle!”

Whose Stories? Whose Knowledge?

As the panelists wrapped up their conversation, they reflected on the recent debates about social studies instruction. Schwartz acknowledged that “[things are] tense right now, when there is legislation in more than half of states restricting the ways that teachers can talk about race, can talk about gender, [can] talk about issues that are deemed as controversial.”

Elangovan shared that reducing social studies only to the discipline of history adds to the controversy as well: Students should also be building knowledge across the disciplines of economics, civics, and geography – and about their own communities. “Learning about our communities is knowledge,” Elangovan shared. “Learning about economics is knowledge.”

Duke framed the debate around a central, values-driven question: “Do children have a right in school to learn about the history of the cultural group or groups to which they belong?” She continued: “That's a values-driven question, right? There's no amount of research that's going to fully answer that question because it really has to do, in a lot of ways, with our priorities. So my answer would be, ‘Yes.’”

Talking a bit about her work at the state level with Massachusetts, Tarca expressed how her team works to ensure stakeholders and voices of historically marginalized groups are heard while setting the state standards, emphasizing that these discussions go beyond a district level. She encouraged classroom teachers, if they can, to advocate for opportunities to focus on the standards that are most relevant to the lives of their students and their communities.

Ideas and Inspiration


The Buzz in the Chat

Here are some great reflections from our participants in the chat!

  • I am going to go out on a limb and say that time is limited but I also see things included in instructional time that don't need to be and take the place of science and social studies. So tricky to approach this issue!

  • I agree with all of this, but very few teachers are actually in control of state/district-mandated minutes/materials spent in curricular areas and that makes integration almost impossible.

  • In my opinion, high-stakes tests in mainly math and literacy have narrowed the curriculum over many years. What’s tested gets taught, I’m afraid.

  • I teach primary (2nd grade). Do you feel it would help reducing the number of concepts taught in order to go in more depth? When I look at the list of standards I am expected to teach, I feel like the mindset is "an inch deep, and a mile wide" approach.

  • It's important that SS and Sci instructions are not just reading about topics. There are disciplinary skills such as geographic reasoning, comparison, contextualization, etc., that students deserve to have the opportunity to experience. Designated instructional time is important for inquiry and investigation as well.

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About inquirED

inquirED was founded by teachers with the mission of bringing inquiry-based social studies to every classroom. Inquiry Journeys, inquirED’s elementary social studies curriculum, is used in schools and districts across the country to help students develop deep social studies content knowledge and build the inquiry skills that are essential for a thriving democracy.

Panelist Bios

Nell K. Duke is considered one of the world’s foremost experts in early literacy education. Her career has been focused on the right to literacy, particularly the ways in which early childhood (birth through age eight) education can set children on a path to literacy proficiency. For 24 years, Nell served as a professor of education and psychology first at Michigan State University and then at the University of Michigan. In 2018, Nell was awarded the International Literacy Association’s highest honor, the William S. Gray Citation of Merit, for outstanding contributions to literacy research, theory, policy, and practice. She has been named one of the most influential education scholars in the U.S. in EdWeek and has been involved in a wide range of initiatives designed to reshape literacy education. She is currently serving as Executive Director of the Center for Early Literacy Success at Stand for Children

Katherine Tarca is the Director of the Office of Literacy and Humanities at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, where she leads a team dedicated to supporting excellent instruction for all students in Massachusetts in the areas of English language arts, literacy, history, social science, civics, and the arts. Prior to joining the state agency, Katherine worked in public schools in three states and the District of Columbia for 14 years, including traditional public schools and charter schools. In that time, she was a teacher, literacy coach, and curriculum director.

Shanti Elangovan is the founder and CEO of inquirED, an education startup focused on ensuring all students, regardless of geography or circumstance, have the opportunity to engage in high-quality inquiry-based learning. As a former elementary school classroom teacher and instructional coach, Shanti believes deeply in high-quality instructional materials that provide both the professional learning and support teachers need to bring inquiry to life in their classrooms. Shanti holds an M.Ed from Teachers College as well as an MBA from the University of Iowa.


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