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An inquirED Blog

Building Deep Background Knowledge: Making The Case For Elementary Social Studies

Updated: Feb 17, 2022

Graphic: build knowledge for future success: ELA and elementary social studies curriculum

View webinar recording for The Case For Elementary Social Studies II: Knowledge Building at the bottom of this blog post. The webinar and following blog post are part of a series sponsored by the National Council for the Social Studies and inquirED.


The American education system has invested enormous amounts of time and resources in improving reading outcomes for elementary students. Despite the dollars and hours spent, reading outcomes continue to hover at all time lows.

So what does this have to do with elementary social studies?

Natalie Wexler, journalist and author of the The Knowledge Gap: The hidden cause of America's broken education system--and how to fix it, revealed the english language arts (ELA) and social studies connection when she spoke with us.

As schools and districts have focused more on reading and math instruction, social studies and other subjects have been squeezed out of the curriculum. "Social studies is usually the first to go," Wexler says, followed quickly by the arts and then science. And it's not because teachers believe social studies is unimportant.

In fact, a 2019 survey of educators found that the opposite was true: the majority of educators believe that teaching elementary social studies affects future outcomes for students across a number of different domains, including reading comprehension, understanding, and interests. If they hold these beliefs, why aren't they spending the time on social studies? Because they are feeling the pressure of high-stakes testing, concluding that more time spent on reading skills correlate with higher reading scores.

Wexler wants to debunk that myth. "We recently learned that more time on social studies is correlated to higher reading scores." To her, the reason for this correlation is clear: social studies builds the knowledge that students need to understand what they read, building the vocabulary and long-term background knowledge that frees up their working memory to process information.

Many of our attendees connected both with Wexler's evaluation of current approaches to reading instruction - and her explanation for the marginalization of elementary social studies:

  • "Until we begin to decrease the number of Standards teachers are held accountable for teaching, this will continue to be a challenge in classrooms."

  • "In our district, social studies time is the “bank” from which a teacher borrows time for RTI, SEL skills, etc. "

  • "We need dedicated time in schedules for teachers to plan for social studies, if teachers are only asked to plan math and literacy with resource teachers, and no time is given for science and social studies it is very clear about what is valued. Building administrators need to care beyond math and literacy."

  • "I teach teacher-candidates methods of science and social studies through inquiry. I am a proponent of teaching literacy through content. Unfortunately, our candidates learn best practice in my course however fail to see it in practice in their practicum experiences. As a matter of fact, they see what historically happens to both content areas - they are pushed to the end of the day or dismissed altogether when something else needs to be taught."

We mentioned resources and studies within the webinar. Check out the summary list below:


If you were unable to attend the webinar, view the video below.


About inquirED

inquirED has moved beyond the textbook, offering a customizable, digital curriculum that supports teachers in shifting to student-centered instruction. inquirED delivers year-long, student-centered curriculum and assessment with engaging content and activities for students and embedded professional learning for teachers. Inquiry Journeys is inquirED’s core elementary social studies curriculum. Inquiry Journeys is a comprehensive inquiry-based curriculum with embedded PD that helps teachers shift their practice to a more inquiry-based approach. Learn More


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