Challenges for ELs in the Social Studies Classroom

Understanding the language and concepts used in a social studies classroom provides an enormous challenge to ELs. ELs generally lack prior knowledge of the U.S. history, geography, and current events needed to understand new material in social studies, and even advanced ELs struggle with the language used in social studies texts.

One of my ELs proudly showed me that he had received a B+ on a test given in his general education history class on the three branches of the U.S. government. I could see immediately that the language was way above his English language development level. When I asked him a simple question about the role played by the legislative branch of the government, he didn’t know the answer. I found that he had memorized the information from a study sheet without comprehending the material and regurgitated the answers on the test. To my mind, this type of learning is perpetuated by the “teaching to the test” mentality in this age of standardized testing.

Challenges for ELs in Learning Social Studies

I questioned subject-area teachers from Grades 4–12 about the challenges that their ELs face when studying social studies. Here are some of the challenges they shared with me.

  • ELs lack  familiarity with historical terms, government processes, and vocabulary used in the study of U.S. history and social studies.
  • Social studies text contains complex sentences, passive voice, and extensive use of pronouns.
  • Concepts that do not exist in all cultures are difficult.  Examples are the concepts of privacy, democratic processes, rights of citizens, and free will.
  • ELs may lack concept of movement within the structure of a society.
  • Use in U.S.  schools of “timeline” teaching vs. learning history by “dynasty” or “period.”
  • Social studies is often taught using lecture-style teaching methods. ELs have difficulty with understanding what the teacher is saying and being able to take notes.
  • The amount of text that is covered during a single lesson is overwhelming for ELs.  They also have an inability to tell what is important in the text and what is not important.

How Do We Help ELs Meet These Challenges?

In a previous blog, I wrote about six strategies for teaching ELs across the content areas. I should like to draw from this blog to remind teachers of the absolute essential strategies when teaching social studies to ELs.

  1. It is essential to connect learning to the students’ personal, cultural, and world experiences.
  2. Teachers need to design lessons that provide comprehensible input.
  3. Lecture-style teaching leaves ELs out of the learning in the social studies classroom. Teachers need to make lessons auditory, visual, and kinesthetic. Use cooperative learning strategies, project-based learning, and Makerspaces.
  4. Develop vocabulary over the course of the unit and provide plenty of practice. My most recent blog on teaching language to pre-K–12 ELs through picture books provides plenty of opportunities to develop language through picture books about events in American history. Picture books can help ELs develop vocabulary, produce language to go with the pictures, and write about their story.

Scaffolding Helps ELs Meet the Challenges of Social Studies Learning

Another important strategy to help ELs meet the challenges of social studies learning is that teachers provide scaffolding so that students can access the information being taught in the lessons. Here are some online materials that will help ELs learn about a lesson in their own language first.

  • CNN en Español or CNN in Arabic. When studying current events, ELs can follow the events in either Spanish or Arabic on CNN. (Grades 5–12)
  • Google supports more than 104 languages or dialects and offers a personalized version of its search engine for more than 115 countries. Have students from Korea, for example, go to Google Korea  and search for information in Korean. (Grades 5–12)
  • Simple English Wiktionary is an online dictionary. It provides definitions for ELs in simple language. It also provides a definition of vocabulary in English in a variety of languages. (Grades 5–12)
  • Wikipedia and Simple English Wikipedia are available in a large variety of languages and provide native-language access to information for ELs. Teachers may want to check articles for accuracy of content information. (Grades 4–12)
  • Newsela contains articles in English and Spanish as well as a built-in mechanism to change the reading level in English. (Grades 2–12)
  • Education Place  is a website that provides graphic organizers for students in English and Spanish. (Grades K–12)
  • Social studies resources from Colorín Colorado provide resources for the teaching of social studies to ELs.

If you have resources to add to this blog, I would appreciate your comments. The more we share as teachers, the more we all learn.

About Judie Haynes

Judie Haynes
Judie Haynes taught elementary ESL for 28 years and is the author and coauthor of eight books for teachers of ELs , the most recent being “Teaching to Strengths: Supporting Students Living with Trauma, Violence and Chronic Stress“ with Debbie Zacarian and Lourdes Alvarez-Ortiz. She was a columnist for the TESOL publication "Essential Teacher" and is also cofounder and comoderator of the Twitter Chat for teachers of English learners #ELLCHAT.
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One Response to Challenges for ELs in the Social Studies Classroom

  1. Nahida El Assi says:

    It seems that regardless of where social studies are taught, learners will face the same challenges that you mentioned. I have observed teachers teaching social studies in Arabic speaking schools using Arabic textbooks. Language difficulty, vocabulary, the teaching approach, etc. were all barriers to learners’ comprehension level.

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