What Social Studies Teachers Should Know About Teaching English Learners

June 2018
teacher and students in a classroom

Based on research, we identified key principles that teachers with English learner students in their classrooms should know. These principles are “big ideas” or concepts about second language acquisition and the academic challenges English learners face.

The density and complexity of social science textbooks and other texts can be particularly challenging for English learners.

Especially for adolescents, social studies texts tend to be longer and denser than those in other content areas. Furthermore, students are often expected to read primary texts, which may include formal and/or archaic language.

Teachers should:

  • Use texts that are adapted without oversimplifying the concepts they convey
  • Use graphic organizers and other visual tools to help make sense of complex information

Some English learners bring background knowledge that differs from what is assumed in textbooks.

English learners do not lack background knowledge, but rather lack some of the specific background knowledge that is typically assumed in many courses and texts. This is especially true in social studies, which as a field concerns itself with culture and social life. In the U.S., it often focuses on the culture and social life of this country, which may not be familiar to all English learners, and even when the focus is global studies, it is viewed through a specifically American lens.

Teachers should:

  • Activate existing background knowledge and build new background knowledge to increase comprehension of social studies texts

Social studies courses require sophisticated and subject- specific uses of language.

Students need to learn to debate, analyze, persuade, compare, and contrast in a range of speaking and writing assignments. Each of these styles demands the use of particular types of vocabulary and syntax that are different from everyday conversation.

Teachers should:

  • Scaffold social studies assignments to build English learners’ ability to make complex arguments in content appropriate ways

To learn more about the services we provide to states, districts, and schools to better support English learner students, visit our area of work page and contact Kelli Scardina.