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11 Chapter 11: Unlocking the Language of Social Studies*


Key Issues

  1. The field of social studies includes many disciplines (e.g., archaeology, history, philosophy, psychology, financial literacy, multicultural studies, economics), each with its own set of language demands.
  2. Social studies may be the most difficult content area for English language learners (ELLs) because they may be unfamiliar with many of the topics, particularly in relation to history.
  3. Many terms in social studies are abstract, hard to translate, and culturally based.
  4. Social studies textbooks and curricula assume that students have a great deal of background knowledge—knowledge that U.S. students accumulate over time from one grade level to the next.
  5. Many strategies and approaches are available for enhancing the learning experiences of ELLs in social studies classrooms of all types.

Read the scenario below and reflect on how you would answer the teachers question to herself.

The sound of excited, high-pitched voices reached the ears of fourth-grade teacher Sheila Covington scant seconds before Catherine, Angélica, and Kamelya demanded her opinion.

“Miss Covington! Miss Covington!” chimed the girls. “We have a question.”

Knowing that a question from these three students could range from the merits of the latest video game to the political situation in the Middle East, Sheila mentally braced herself.

“We don’t understand something,” began Angélica. “I was born in Mérida, México, which makes me Mexican.”

“Yes, and I was born here in the United States, so I’m an American!” asserted Catherine.
“But Kamelya’s parents . . . .”

“I was born in Russia,” stated Kamelya calmly and clearly, “but I am Turkish. Everyone speaks Turkish in my family and that’s the only language we speak at home. It was only when I entered school that I learned Russian, but I am not Russian.”

“But, Miss Covington, that just doesn’t make sense to us,” explained Catherine and Angélica.

“Ah, the complexities of a multinational, multicultural identity are tough concepts to explain,” thought Sheila. “I have noticed that an increasing number of our immigrant ELL students have complex identities. Now, how can I explore and clarify the ideas of nationality, citizenship, and culture with 9- and 10-year-olds?

About the Field of Social Studies

According to the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS, 2010), social studies is the integrated study of the social sciences and humanities to promote civic competence (NCSS, 2010). The field of social studies within the U.S. context has three important distinctions: (1) it is designed to promote civic competence as determined by U.S. norms; (2) it is cumulative, building on content learned over many years; and (3) it is integrative, incorporating many disciplines such as anthropology, archaeology, economics, geography, history, law, philosophy, political science, psychology, religion, and sociology. The National Curriculum for Social Studies (2010) is organized around ten themes:

1. Culture 2. Time, Continuity, and Change
3. People, Places, and Environments 4. Individual Development and Indetity
5. Individuals, Groups, and Institutions 6. Power, Authority, and Governance
7. Production, Distribution, and Consumption 8. Science, Technology, and Society
9. Global Connections 10. Civic Ideals and Practices.

The aims, focus, and characteristics of the social studies curricula all contribute to making the diverse disciplines of social studies difficult subject areas for ELLs. The integrative nature of social studies assumes that students have certain knowledge and skills in many other disciplines. In addition, the emphasis on democracy might be completely new for students and in direct contradiction to some of their traditions or political perspectives. The NCSS further states:
The primary purpose of social studies is to help young people develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world.” (emphasis added; NCSS, n.d., para. 3)

As the chapter-opening vignette illustrates, cultural diversity and the results of worldwide population migration are readily encountered in U.S. classrooms. Today’s educators must be prepared to interpret such encounters with sensitivity because the outcomes affect not just academic achievement but the well-being and personal identity of ELL students. As Salinas, Franquiz and Reidel (2008) point out, “Because late-arrival students have binational, if not transnational, experiences, there is the possibility for potentially divergent understandings of citizenship” (p. 74). In an increasingly diverse society, the plurality of identities challenges traditional views of citizenship and nationality, amplifies the notion of global identity, and gives credence to Gloria Anzaldúa’s poem “To Live in the Borderlands Means You” (1999).

Besides the difficulties inherent in multinational identities, and as the challenges listed in this chapter suggest, some educators believe that social studies may be the most difficult content area for ELLs because of the invisible features of many of the topics in the field. The following list explains some of these features:

  1. Content may be new. For example, concepts such as liberty, democracy, taxation, civil rights, and free will might be completely unknown by students coming from countries with long-term dictatorships or dictatorial regimes.
  2. Topics are not only abstract but language-dependent, too. For example, students will encounter abstract concepts such as justice, responsibility, and First Constitutional Congress, which require students to depend more on reading and listening.
  3. The field of social studies incorporates many disciplines. The field of social studies incorporates many disciplines, as listed previously, and it utilizes numerous skills and processes from math, science, and language arts.
  4. The field relies on extensive background knowledge. For ELLs who received part of their elementary education outside the United States, the lack of prior exposure to the elementary social studies curriculum may pose enormous challenges because they will need to learn not only the grade-level content but several years of previous social studies curricula.
  5. History is presented in a linear manner, like a timeline. This presentation may cause some confusion for students coming from educational systems where history is learned around selected dynasties or periods.

Additional potential challenges for ELLs in social studies classrooms include:

  • Most high school ELLs have not had seven or eight years of instruction in U.S. elementary and middle schools, and their prior knowledge may be significantly different from that of their U.S. peers.
  • Social studies vocabulary can be highly technical and abstract.
  • Often, ELLs are not familiar with historical concepts, terms, or U.S. governmental processes.
  • Social studies require very high literacy skills because much of the instruction comes through teacher lecture and textbook reading.
  • Textbooks often lack clear and complete explanations of the topics they present.
  • Textbooks often use passive voice, intricate sentences, and pronouns that can make it difficult for ELLs to understand passages.
  • The worldview(s), perspectives, and values presented in textbooks and public school curricula may be very different from those of ELLs’ families and countries.
  • ELLs may not be accustomed to offering their personal opinions and challenging texts and others.

In addition to lack of familiarity with the language and content of social studies, ELLs may encounter additional challenges with a number of classroom activities. For example (and as reviewed in previous chapters), many ELLs may be unfamiliar with group work, debates, timelines, and oral reports. They may never have questioned authors or teachers’ ideas, and they may have never ventured their own opinions before.

Another area that presents challenges for ELLs is the perspective from which U.S. texts are written, that is, from local and national viewpoints. Students coming from other nations may have significantly divergent worldviews. For example, when studying the diverse peoples of the West, Chinese students may feel that textual descriptions of Chinese laborers are incomplete, inaccurate, or biased. Similarly, when studying the continents, ELLs may find that their knowledge about the continents is considered erroneous because in many countries, children are taught that there are five continents, not the seven taught in U.S. schools. Because social studies is inherently culture-specific, the perspective presented in the textbook and in the school curriculum may be different from what ELLs learned in their native countries.

Disciplines within social studies, however, can provide ideal settings for teaching ELLs. A case in point is world geography. As suggested by Salinas, Fránquiz, and Reidel (2008), an emphasis on cultural geography can be ideal for connecting the content of the curriculum with students’ lives. In the area of physical geography, the study of physical features such as plains, mountains, rivers, valleys, and lakes, among others, can be taught using many types of educational supports such as visual aids, hands-on activities, illustrations in textbooks, or searching the Internet.

In sum, academic success in social studies classrooms requires that students acquire much of the background knowledge that children raised in the United States have learned over many years. In the following sections, we discuss some of the particular characteristics of the language of social studies that may pose challenges for ELLs as they try to learn both language and content.

Scenario, Continued

Later that day, after school, Sheila sat down to consider how she could approach the identity issues brought up by Catherine, Angélica, and Kamelya. To generate some ideas, she turned to Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies prepared by the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) and the CCSS. As she encountered pertinent phrases, she jotted them down. After a few minutes of scanning, she had generated the following list:

  • Multidisciplinary
  • Perspectives: personal, academic, pluralist, global
  • Of the 10 themes and/or organizing strands stated in the standards, these seem to apply the best:
    1. Individual Development and Identity
    2. Individuals, Groups, and Institutions
    3. Power, Authority, and Governance
    1. Global Connections

Thinking back to exactly what the girls had said, Sheila suddenly realized the implicit meaning buried in the phrase I am _____. While common usage of English permits one to say, “I am American,” as Catherine had done, the actual message conveyed can be multifaceted unless specified by the speaker. For instance, Catherine’s statement could be interpreted as:

  • I am an American citizen.
  • I am an American national (meaning “I was born in America”).
  • My culture is American.
  • America is the continent of my birth. (Remember: Canadians, Guatemalans, and Peruvians are “Americans,” too!)

The phrase I am _____ reflects a state of being. As such, it is intimately connected to identity.

National Curriculum Standards for Social Studies and CCSS

The 2010 revision of the National Curriculum Standards for Social Studies (NCSSS) provides a framework for teaching, learning, and assessment in social studies that includes a clear articulation of curriculum objectives and reflects alignment across the different sections of the document.  This 2010 revision is organized around the ten themes of social studies and offers a sharper focus on five areas:

  • Purposes;
  • Questions for exploration;
  • Knowledge: what learners need to understand;
  • Processes: what learners will be capable of doing;
  • Products: how learners demonstrate understanding.

A quick review at the current social studies standards framework, the CCSS for English language arts (Grades 6-12 Literacy in history/social studies), and recently published social studies textbooks and blogs reveals a clear focus on academic language use.  The CCSS and the accompanying NCSSS have moved a traditional focus on learning facts, dates, and names to a focus on skills, understanding a variety of perspectives, gathering information to support claims, and creating understandings of the world. Under the CCSS, social studies classrooms are surrounded by language, with students discussing what they view in a recently discovered photograph, reviewing original sources and Internet materials, and collaborating with each other. In classrooms like these, students are learning how to identify trustworthy sources of information online, how to comprehend what they are reading, and how to present their findings—orally and in writing—supported by evidence.  Thus, all students, including ELLs, will need to access content knowledge and demonstrate that knowledge using a wide variety of via a variety of texts and modalities.

The Specialized Language of Social Studies

Read this passage:
Runaway horses, stampeded cattle, prairie fires, blizzards, heat, sunstroke, Indians, lice, snakes and the pure loneliness of the open plains—all of these and more faced the western pioneers of the 1800’s. Certainly there were those who gave up, moving back to the security of the East, but many more stayed and helped build and shape the West one sod shack at a time, one small farm at a time and eventually one town at a time. They traveled forth on horseback, in Conestoga wagons . . . some even walked. For them it wasn’t a question of how long it would take, only that it had to be done. And they did it. (American Westward Expansion 2006, para. 9)

In the passage above, analyzed by Brown (2007), we can observe the complexity of language and content for students who may not have knowledge of the westward expansion. The text is filled with rarely encountered terms, such as stampeded, prairie fires, blizzards, open plains, western pioneers, sod shack, Conestoga wagons. New terms like these can overwhelm readers and cause them to misinterpret the passage. The type of grammatical constructions (such as dependent or multiple clauses that connect a series of ideas, concepts, and facts, as in the excerpt above) may cause students to be unable to differentiate main points from supporting details.

This type of complexity is also present at the discourse level. For example, in middle and high school history classes, students are often expected to write argument papers about a particular issue. This is a difficult genre, and as stated by Achugar and Schleppegrell (2016), it requires that students construct the claims, analysis, and evidence before they can construct effective arguments. Often, the specific linguistic features (like those for an argument paper) needed for students to successfully access and produce different types of genres are not necessarily taught within the social studies classroom, yet students are expected to be able to produce comparisons, syntheses, persuasive arguments, analyses, and classifications in the history classroom.

The social studies language register, characterized by an abundance of unfamiliar vocabulary terms, difficult grammatical constructions, and distinctive genres, can present many challenges even to the average native English-speaking student. Thus, for ELLs—even those at advanced levels of language proficiency—the language of social studies can pose numerous obstacles. More detailed explanations and examples showcasing the uniqueness of the language of social studies are presented below. These explanations and examples are organized into sections about vocabulary, sentence level features, and discourse features.

Word/phrase level

The social studies register includes a vast number of words, phrases, and expressions drawn from the social sciences, natural sciences, and the humanities. Each of the more than 10 disciplines covered in social studies has its own set of specialized terminology and concepts that students must understand and be able to use appropriately in order to succeed in this area. For instance, Figure 11.1 presents definitions and examples of general, specialized, and technical academic vocabulary terms needed to understand psychologist Erik Erikson’s eight stages of human emotional development.

The vocabulary terms in Figure 11.1 pertain to just one short unit on human development. However, the vastness of the field of social studies in terms of disciplines and content suggests that the number of new terms, phrases, and expressions that ELLs encounter in the social studies classroom is extensive.  In fact, in a study by Eric Dwyer (2007) investigating the vocabulary used in textbooks according to grade level, the findings indicated that the increase of social studies vocabulary by grade exceeded that of other content areas (as cited in Cho & Reich, 2008, p. 236).

General Academic Vocabulary Specialized Academic Vocabulary Technical Academic Vocabulary
Terms used in social studies and in other subjects Terms associated with social studies Terms associated with a specific social studies topic
  • conflict resolution
  • theory
  • stages
  • adolescence
  • maturity
  • identity crisis
  • human development
  • psychosocial development
  • inferiority
  • social pressure
  • psychoanalysis
  • autonomy
  • stagnation
  • generativity
  • ego integrity

Figure 11.1 Types of vocabulary in social studies.


Select two areas and grade levels from the list below and jot down the academic terms and expressions that students need to know in order to participate successfully in the discussion of the corresponding topics.

  • Anthropology, elementary: understanding time capsules
  • Archeology, middle school: learning how to think like an archeologist
  • Economics, elementary: why and how we save
  • Geography, high school: demographer’s challenge: understanding megalopolis
  • History, middle school: exploring the perils of colonization
  • Sociology, high school: theory and practice of crime and punishment

Another consideration in planning for and successfully teaching social studies vocabulary is that many terms may not have direct translations to other languages. For example, in the Russian language, words like privacy, challenge, take care, and efficiency have no direct translation. As you might expect, terms in other languages also do not have direct equivalents in English. For example, the French term malencontreux is an adjective that means “unfortunate, ill-timed, untimely, and inopportune” all at the same time. Also in French, the terms gare and station both translate as station in English; the former is used only for trains or buses, while the latter is used only for the metro, subway, or underground.

Another challenging aspect about many of the terms and concepts used in social studies, particularly in relation to history, is that words can be culturally situated and may have different meanings for students coming from other countries.  A case in point is the term colony. For most students born in the United States, the term colony is positively associated with the thirteen colonies, independence from Great Britain, and the beginning of the United States. For many immigrant students, however, the terms colony and colonization are associated with oppression, enslavement, and, in some cases, genocide.

How can we communicate “across unshared worlds” and “different points of departure” (Hasan, 2004)? The diversity of linguistic, cultural, social, and political perspectives makes it very difficult to translate terms and concepts to other languages, particular when dealing with sociocultural terms. For example, how can the nonspecific words brother and sister be translated into Mayan when that language has specific terms for younger brother or older brother? In another context, while finding words for colors in other languages is not difficult, the connotations that different colors have in different languages might make a fully nuanced translation rather tricky. Take, for example, the color red, as in seeing red (representing being angry) or the red light district. In Russian, the color red connotes beauty and is similar to the way golden is used in English. Hence, throughout the years, we have used the directly translated, color-bound phrases Red Square and the Red Army instead of the more socioculturally contextualized translations of “Golden Square” and “the Golden Army.” One final example is the meaning of the color white. In the United States and in many European countries, white is associated with purity and moral goodness, hence, brides wear white during their wedding. In China, brides wear red because this color is associated with good luck, happiness, and prosperity, and people wear white only when a family member has died. In China, white is associated with weakness, paleness, and a lack of vitality.

Thus, it is not difficult to understand why language is so intertwined with culture. We have all heard that Eskimos have 27 words for snow and that the Puyallup Indians in the Northwest have numerous terms for salmon. For someone in Florida, snow is that “cold, fluffy, white stuff” that falls on the ground during the winter. For Eskimos, as for skiers, snow may take very different forms and textures that require different labels. Clearly, language is culturally bound.


People living in the northwestern portion of the United States use many synonyms and colloquialisms to refer to rain. Can you list at least six synonyms or phrases to use in place of the word “rain”? (One example is “mist.”)

Some words and phrases have different layers of meaning because of their symbolic nature and emotional charge. Think about the terms buffalo, colony, swastika, holocaust, Indian reservation, Crusades, Inquisition, and conquistador. For some students, some of these terms may bring a host of feelings and additional layers of meaning.

Finally, another level of difficulty for ELLs in the social studies class is that many of the terms and concepts discussed are highly abstract, and their meanings are difficult to convey by giving a simple explanation or using visuals or illustrations. Some examples are the words democracy, economy, citizenship, the Harlem Renaissance, and capitalism. Unlike science or math classrooms, social studies classrooms do not often include the use of hands-on experiments or manipulatives.


How would you help fifth-graders understand the following terms?
abolitionist primary source secondary source debt
urbanization physical and political boundaries amendments

Sentence level features

The following text comes from a social studies textbook:
The Non-Intercourse Act of 1809—a watered-down version of Jefferson’s embargo aimed solely at Britain and France—was due to expire in 1810. To Madison’s dismay, Congress dismantled the embargo completely with a bargaining measure known as Macon’s Bill No. 2. While reopening American trade with all the world, Macon’s Bill dangled what Congress hoped was an attractive lure. (Kennedy, Cohen, & Bailey, 2001, p. 228)

In their analysis of this text, Cho and Reich (2008) highlight the challenges faced by students: (1) the need to know the different meanings of discipline-specific words (e.g., act, bill); and (2) encountering advanced vocabulary words such as embargo, dismantle, dangle, and lure, which they will most likely not find in their everyday lives. In addition to the vocabulary, the structure of the sentences tends to be very complex, where relationships of cause and effect are embedded in ways that make them difficult for ELLs to recognize (Cho & Reich, 2008, p. 237).

Other characteristics of textbooks and materials used in social studies classrooms include the use of the passive voice; complex and dense texts; and the abundance of dependent clauses or multiple clauses that connect a series of facts, ideas, and concepts in one long sentence. These and other features make it difficult for ELLs to differentiate main ideas from supporting details.

Cause-and-effect relations, discussed in Chapter 8, are also pervasive in social studies texts. An examination of texts and tasks used in social studies showed that selected linguistic signals cue student to time references, cause and effect, and comparison and contrast in text structures. Such signals include verb tenses and condition, expressions of time, rhetorical markers (e.g., temporal phrases, conjunctions), and causative words (e.g., thus, hence).  Observations by Short (1994) in social studies classrooms demonstrate that explicit instruction of these signal words can be very beneficial in improving students’ reading and writing skills. See Figure 11.2 for words that signal different types of organizational patterns.

Classification Cause Effect
still others
first, second, third, etc.
1,2,3, etc.
due to
on account of
leads to
led to
for the reason that
given that
as a result
for this reason
in order to
Sequence Comparison Contrast
first, second, third, etc.
by the same token
as well as
in comparison
in the same way
in spite of
even though
on the contrary

Figure 11.2 Terms that signal a type of organizational pattern.


Using the information about the specific characteristics of social studies vocabulary and grammatical constructions discussed in this chapter, imagine how an English learner might feel when opening a thick social studies textbook. What predictions can you make about the challenges that ELLs face?

Discourse Level Features

At the discourse level, we will discuss two specific aspects of the language of social studies: (1) the difficulties presented by social studies textbooks and other kinds of texts for all students, particularly ELLs, and (2) the different genres of language that students need to produce to be successful in the social studies classroom.

Difficulties Presented by Social Studies Textbooks and Materials.

In most social studies textbooks, facts and details are often condensed. In addition, concrete or anecdotal details, which can help ELLs connect unfamiliar concepts with what they know or have experienced, are often omitted. ELLs’ difficulties with reading comprehension are further compounded by textbooks containing a high concentration of new vocabulary or complex sentence patterns.

Research studies have analyzed the main characteristics of history and social studies textbooks and the challenges that selected features pose to ELLs when reading these texts (see, for example, Brown, 2007; de Oliveira & Obenchain, 2018; Schleppegrell & Achugar, 2003). The following list summarizes the main findings from these studies that may pose challenges to ELLs as they try to crack the textbook code:

  • There are few graphic cues.
  • There is a less predictable sequence compared with narratives. Thus, it is harder to predict what will happen next.
  • Insufficient glossaries cause students to look up terms in dictionaries.
  • Expository texts assume that readers have the necessary background knowledge to understand the text, and the texts do not fill in the gaps when readers lack relevant background information.
  • Some readers’ prior knowledge may be mismatched and could interfere with comprehension of the text.
  • Vocabulary in social studies can be highly technical and abstract.
  • Written discourse, particularly if it does not include pictorial or graphic material, lacks nonverbal clues to meaning, for example, facial expressions, intonation, or gestures.
  • Instantaneous clarification and feedback are not possible, unlike face-to-face communication. Readers of written text must figure out what they are reading without input from the author. Without seeking the assistance of other people, readers must draw on their own prior knowledge and knowledge of the language and writing conventions in order to construct meaning from the text.
  • Few terms, usually no more than 10, are defined per chapter.
  • Sidebars, boxes, highlights, and other materials break up the main narrative, causing students to be uncertain about how to approach the text.

Diverse Written Genres.

As discussed above, the field of social studies encompasses several disciplines, each with its own sets of vocabulary and phrases, sentence level features or grammatical structures, and discourse features. This range of fields requires that students in social studies classes develop strategies to access and, more important, produce a diversity of genres. Figure 11.3 presents a list of different genres or types of tasks used routinely in social studies classrooms across the country. Each task demands that students produce different kinds of texts, each of which may have different organizational and linguistic features.

interviews historical descriptions timelines
photo essays media analyses map making
timeline captions written debates travelogues
editorials multimedia presentations simulations
biographies scenarios autobiographical accounts
journals factual explanations rebuttals
digital maps panel simulations electronic portfolios
reports theses summaries
charts and tables online bulletin boards synopses
historical arguments essays personal accounts
diagrams geographical representations graphics
visual analysis explanations blogs

Figure 11.3 History and geography presentation and writing genres.

As the figure indicates, there are a great variety of text types, all of which create many challenges for students. Due to the diversity of demands in each genre, Schleppegrell (2005) advocates for the explicit teaching of how to write in a variety of styles, including writing styles that ask students to define a problem, speculate about alternatives, and reformulate information to support a point. For example, teachers can help students understand the differences among historical account, historical explanation, and argument by providing students with a comparison of the different types, as illustrated in Figure 11.4. This kind of information not only helps students understand the goals and characteristics of each genre, it also provides a model for students to organize information when comparing two or more items.

Genre What It Does Question It Answers
Historical account Establishes the sequence of events, with causal reasoning about why things happened Why did it happen? (analyze)
Historical explanation Defines and evaluates; explains and interprets the factors that led to, or the consequences of, historical events What brought this about?
What was the result of this? (explain and interpret)
Historical argument Promotes a position on or interpretation of events What is your judgment of what happened? (evaluate)

Figure 11.4 Selected genres of history.
Source: Adapted from Schleppegrell (2005).

The final section of this chapter provides selected strategies that have proven useful for teaching specific aspects of social studies content and language.

Strategies for Teaching and Learning Social Studies

Szpara and Ahmad (2007) recommend three broad practices to support ELLs in high school social studies classrooms: (1) developing socially supportive classrooms, (2) explicit teaching of academic skills; and (3) reducing cognitive load and increasing accessibility of complex content knowledge. We build on these recommendations and extend them by providing very specific strategies to accomplish those goals. Many of these strategies have proven successful not only with high school students but with middle and elementary school students, too.

1. Developing socially supportive classrooms

This section suggests ways in which teachers can create a safe space where ELLs’ languages, cultures, and experiences are recognized and affirmed (Nieto & Bode, 2018) and where ELLs feel comfortable taking the risks necessary to learn language and content.

Link the unfamiliar with the familiar by tapping students’ previous knowledge. By using KWL charts (with the headings Know, Want to Know, and Learned; see chapter 3) or analogies, or discussing concepts and ideas relevant to students’ lives, teachers can link students’ experiential knowledge with curricular content. For example, a teacher might help ELLs understand the tensions between the American colonies and Great Britain by having students talk about the issues that arise when parents or other adults change the rules.

Use collaborative groups for tackling complex reading materials. By dividing the reading material and assigning each group a section, the reading becomes more manageable for students. Students’ responsibilities include reading and understanding their assigned sections and teaching those sections to the rest of the class by using visuals, performances, or realia. In this way, students are not overwhelmed by lengthy or complex texts.

Level the field by making students the teachers and teachers the learners. ELLs have a wide array of experiences that make them experts in some aspects where native English speakers might have very little knowledge. Think about topics such as long-distance transportation, immigration, world geography, and currency exchange, among many others. Immigrant students may be very knowledgeable in these areas and can shine when they have opportunities to discuss these topics. Teachers can also become learners by attempting to learn students’ native languages, geography, currency names and values, and other culture-specific information and customs.

Build on the “funds of knowledge[2]” of students, families and communities. Throughout this book, we have discussed the importance of building on the knowledge and skills held by ELL students, their families, and the communities in which they reside (Moll, Amanti, Neff & Gonzalez, 2005; Johnson & Newcomer, 2018). When teachers get to know students and their families and communities, they can appreciate the richness of cultural and cognitive resources available to support and enhance meaningful learning. For example, in a fourth- and fifth-grade combined, sheltered classroom, students asked their parents and family to list all the countries they have visited or lived in and to list the languages they spoke. After combining all the information by placing thumb tacks on a world map and listing all the different languages, students and teacher decided to focus on the linguistic diversity that existed in their classroom and the surrounding community. Throughout the school year, the teacher and students invited community members to come and read a book in their native language. Students created an archive of oral and written language samples, explored language families, and found out about the countries in which those languages were spoken. The learning was tremendous both in terms of the appreciation and validation of the community’s linguistic diversity and also in terms of students’ better understanding of the world’s linguistic diversity.

Promote an oral history approach. Oral history projects help students understand that history includes the collection and recording of personal memories as historical documentation. Complex issues can become more accessible when they are developed from students’ background and experiences. In working with data obtained from oral histories, students are engaging in many of the historical thinking skills outlined in the U.S. history standards (Ernst-Slavit & Morrison, 2018). Some topics that lend themselves to this kind of approach include dependence and interdependence, the interaction of human beings and their environment, the causes and results of war, resource development and use, scarcity, acculturation, migration, and the impact of economic or technological changes on societies. When students work on oral histories, they enhance their understanding of the past and their own personal experiences. They also enhance their English language proficiency by using their oral skills as they interview and present information and their literacy skills by recording and transcribing oral interviews. Using an oral history approach also promotes parental involvement, native language use in meeting instructional goals, validation of the students’ cultures and experiences, and enhancement of self-esteem (Ernst-Slavit & Morrison, 2018).

2. Explicit teaching of academic skills

In this section, we discuss the various ways in which teachers can help students learn the necessary thought processes and academic skills needed to access the texts, tasks, and teacher talk in the social studies classroom.

Offer explicit instruction of learning strategies. Several instructional approaches, such as Cognitive Academic Language Learning Approach (CALLA), Guided Language Acquisition Design (GLAD), Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol (SIOP), and Specially Designed Academic Instruction of English (SDAIE), focus on explicit instruction of learning strategies for ELLs. For example, teachers should not assume that their students know how to skim or scan reading materials, use a planner, or break tasks into manageable sections. ELLs’ prior schooling experiences may not have included these types of academic strategies.

Plan for academic classroom discussions. Because much of what transpires in social studies classrooms takes place via whole-class discussions, English language learners need to be involved and encouraged to practice extended academic talk with their peers and with the teacher. Through effective academic classroom discussions (Zwiers & Crawford, 2011), also called instructional conversations (Tharp & Gallimore, 1988), teachers can help students develop skills in answering both factual and higher-order questions and prompt students to elaborate on, justify, or evaluate their own (or a peer’s) comments (Ernst-Slavit & Pratt, 2017). Zwiers (2008) also suggests that classroom discussions:

  • Allow for repetition of terms, phrases, and grammatical and thinking processes, which is conducive to the acquisition of those terms and processes.
  • Encourage students to think quickly, respond, organize their thoughts into sentences, and ask for clarification.
  • Allow students to observe how others think and use language to describe their thinking.

Encourage students to practice how to ask questions and request clarifications. One issue for ELLs is that they often do not know how to ask questions or how to request clarification. When teachers ask all the students in the class if they understand the task at hand or the requirements for the homework, it is not uncommon for ELLs to remain quiet or pretend to have no questions even though they might not have understood the directions. Modeling, role playing, planned interviews, a short handout containing four or five sentence or question starters, (leveled to the English proficiency level of your ELL students), and small-group discussions can provide ELLs with opportunities to practice what to say in interactive settings where participation is expected. Here are some examples of sentence and question starters:

  • “I like how you . . . .”
  • “I was unclear about . . . .”
  • “What did . . . mean?”
  • “Could you tell me more about . . . ?”

Use deliberate instruction about how to navigate textbooks. In Chapter 9, we discussed some of the problems that ELLs encounter with mathematics textbooks. Social studies textbooks can also pose challenges for language learners, partly because of the density of the material (that is, the high concentration of information per page). Helping students learn about the different features of a textbook provides many benefits, particularly because many ELLs come from cultures where reading is done from right to left, where the table of contents is in the back of the book, and where textbooks are primarily in black and white and contain few or no illustrations. Figure 11.5 lists many of the features that characterize textbooks in general. Reviewing these textbook features with students may help them become familiar with the text and learn some strategies, such as distinguishing between the main ideas and the supporting details in a portion of text.

Feature Examples
Organization of text Table of contents                Glossary

Page numbers.                    Index

Organization of ideas Synopses                             Subheadings

Titles                                   Headings


Graphical aids Illustrations                         Charts and tables

Photographs                        Diagrams


Elaboration and emphasis Captions                              Footnotes

Margin notes

Bold, italicized, or highlighted text

Extension of understanding Questions.                           Links to digital media

Figure 11.5 Common text features.

Use graphic organizers. Graphic organizers offer students visual models for organizing, understanding, and applying information regarding terms and concepts and their relationships (Gallavan & Kotler, 2007). The popularity of graphic organizers has increased in recent years because they are useful in helping students understand complex material and manage data before, during, and after reading. Many books, materials, and websites provide a wide array of graphic organizers suitable for any purpose imaginable. This diversity of formats and models allows teachers to keep their students engaged. For examples of how to apply diverse graphic organizers in the social studies classrooms, see Gallavan and Kottler (2007).

3. Reducing cognitive load and increasing accessibility of complex content knowledge.

“Reducing cognitive load” does not mean simplifying the material or “dumbing down the curriculum.” On the contrary, the goal is to encourage cognitive complexity by using linguistic simplicity. Suggestions for accomplishing this goal include: (1) locating materials in the first language to provide some background knowledge, (2) finding materials for ELLs on the same topic that are written using simpler language (e.g., some topics in fifth-grade textbooks are similar to those in eighth-grade and eleventh-grade textbooks but are written in much simpler language), and (3) providing outlines or PowerPoint presentations to further support students’ understanding.

Use role play to make abstract concepts concrete. If ELLs are unfamiliar with the concept of dilemma, a role play may be created in which students in a grade level have to make a difficult decision. ELLs do not need to participate to benefit from this activity; observing other students or participating in writing the script can benefit them, too.

Preview reading assignments. As discussed in Chapter 9, students can preview reading assignments via a summary, outline, or PowerPoint presentation, or they can take the textbook home for review. This affords students excellent opportunities to become familiar with the topics and concepts to be discussed before they are introduced by the teacher.

Provide or encourage students to locate materials and information in their native language. Locating materials in the native language that relate to the unit or lesson to be discussed can help students have advance knowledge of the terms, concepts, and content objectives before the lesson is given. For example, when studying geography, students can search for atlases, books, and other materials at their school or local libraries. Many websites offer translations of topics, key vocabulary terms, and materials for social studies classes.


When studying Martin Luther King, students can preview King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in several languages (i.e., Arabic, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Marathi, Portuguese, and Russian) at Martin Luther King Online, at http://www.mlkonline.net/speeches.html. For a quality site about cross-cultural communication, see Culture Crossing at http://culturecrossing.net/index.php. This website offers a wealth of information about hundreds of countries, including basic information about communication styles and cultural norms. How might you use these two resources to support your ELLs?

Use cognates with your Spanish-speaking students. As noted in other chapters in this text, there are many cognates (words that are written similarly) in English and Spanish. Figure 11.6 lists examples of cognates pertaining to social studies, particularly history and geography. As you can see, your Spanish speakers may know more terminology than you think! It is important to realize, however, that cognates are also found in Russian and several other languages, especially European languages.

History Geography
English Spanish English Spanish
circumstance circunstancia continent continente
civilization civilización globe globo
clemency clemencia dessert desierto
constitution constitución geography geografía
democracy democracia gulfs golfos
federal federal hemisphere hemisferio
federation federación latitude latitud
legislature legislatura longitude longitud
public sector sector público nation nación
presidency presidencia poles polos
reform reforma oceans oceános
social social peninsulas peninsulas
science ciencia reserve reserva

Figure 11.6 English–Spanish cognates in social studies


The field of social studies may present multiple challenges for English language learners because of the diversity of disciplines and topics that may be completely new for ELLs, the abstract nature of terms and concepts, the overreliance on textbook reading and teacher lecture, and the culture-specific background knowledge that is required to interpret and contextualize knowledge. When it comes to history, one of the main issues for ELLs is that students may not have the cumulative knowledge that U.S. students have attained through study in previous grade levels. Within social studies, however, a few areas of study, such as world geography, cultural geography, and physical geography, can provide ELLs with opportunities to build on what they know and teachers with opportunities to utilize a variety of instructional supports for enhancing the teaching and learning process. Careful planning and deliberate and explicit instruction regarding vocabulary, sentence level features, and discourse features that comprise the language of social studies benefits all students, but particularly ELLs.


For Reflection

  1. Culturally unfamiliar topics. As mentioned in Chapter 11, many ELLs may not be familiar with famous people in U.S. history (e.g., Franklin D. Roosevelt), with places and settings of historic importance (e.g., the Oregon Trail), and concepts and topics tied to democracy (civil rights). Think about other topics and concepts that might be unfamiliar to students who did not grow up in the United States. What strategies can you use to make these topics more accessible to your ELLs?
  2. Building on ELLs’ experiences. Earlier in the chapter, we discussed that world and physical geography are excellent topics to build on ELLs’ background knowledge and experiences. Think about other social studies topics that can be taught by building on what ELLs already know.
  3. Explore further. For information about the role of talk and interaction in the social studies classrooms, read the following articles:
    • Ernst-Slavit, G., & Morrison, S.J. (2019). “Unless you were Native American…everybody came from another country”: Language and content learning in a grade 4 diverse classroom. The Social Studies. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00377996.2018.1539700
    • Gibbons, P. (2015). Scaffolding language, scaffolding learning: Teaching English language learners in the mainstream classroom. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. https://assets.pearsonschool.com/asset_mgr/current/201511/gibbonschapter.pdf
    • Mason, M., & Ernst-Slavit, G. (2010). Representations of Native Americans in elementary school social studies:  A critical look at instructional language. Multicultural Education, 18(1), 10-17.
  • For ideas about teaching language and content, including social studies, see these recent publications:
    • Sharkey, J. (Ed.). (2018).Engaging research: Transforming practices for the elementary school. Alexandria, VA: TESOL Press.  
    • Lindahl, K., & Hansen-Thomas, H. (Eds.). (2018).Engaging research: Transforming practices for the middle school classroom. Alexandria, VA: TESOL Press.
    • Stewart, M., & Hansen-Thomas, H. (Ed.). (2019).  Engaging research: Transforming practices for the high school classroom.Alexandria, VA: TESOL Press.

For Action

  1. Adapting instruction. Identify a chapter in a social studies textbook pertaining to your grade level or teaching context. List all the specific terms, concepts, and sentence level features you think will be difficult for ELLs, particularly those ELLs in the beginning stages of English language proficiency. Select a list of potential strategies for facilitating instruction of those difficult aspects. Make a plan about how you or the teacher can teach those specific aspects so that all students in the classroom can access and demonstrate knowledge of the chapter you have identified.
  2. Community cultural exploration. Search for places in your community where ELLs and their families might spend time on evenings and weekends. For example, explore the possibility of attending a religious service in another language; visiting an ethnic market; attending a Sunday language school; or having a meal in a small, family-owned ethnic restaurant. During your visit, note the different resources (e.g., artifacts, communication, traditions) available in that location that could be used in your teaching context.


Achugar M., & Schleppegrell M. (2016) Reflection Literacy and the Teaching of History. In Bowcher W.L., Liang J.Y. (Eds) Society in Language, Language in Society. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

American Westward Expansion. (2006). Retrieved September 27, 2009, from http://www.americanwest.com/pages/wexpansi.htm

Anzaldua, G. (1999). To live in the borderlands. Borderlands-La Frontera. The New Mestiza (pp. 194-195). San Francisco, CA: Aunt Lute Books. http://www.revistascisan.unam.mx/Voices/pdfs/7422.pdf

Brown, C. L. (2007). Strategies for making social studies texts more comprehensible for English-language learners. The Social Studies, 98(5), 185–188.

Cho, S., & Reich, G.A. (2008). New immigrants, new challenges: High school social studies teachers and English language learner instruction. The Social Studies, 99(6), 235–242.

Common Core State Standards (CCSS). (2010). Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects. Retrieved from http://www.corestandards.org/ELA-Literacy

de Oliveira, L. C., & Obenchain, K. M. (2018). Teaching History and Social Studies to English Language Learners Preparing Pre-Service and In-Service Teachers. London, Palgrave: Macmillan.

Ernst-Slavit, G., & Morrison, S.J. (2018). “Unless you were Native American…everybody came from another country:” Language and Content Learning in a Grade 4 Diverse Classroom. The Social Studies, 109(6), 309-323. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00377996.2018.1539700

Ernst-Slavit, G., & Pratt, K. L. (2017). Teacher Questions: Learning the Discourse of Science in a Linguistically Diverse Elementary Classroom. Linguistics and Education, 40, 1-10. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.linged.2017.05.005

Gallavan, N. P., & Kottler, E. (2007). Eight types of graphic organizers for empowering social studies students and teachers. The Social Studies, 98(3), 117–123.

Gibbons, P. (2015). Scaffolding language, scaffolding learning: Teaching English language learners in the mainstream classroom. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Hasan, R. (2004) ‘Reading picture reading: a study in ideology and inference’. In J. A. Foley (Ed.) Language, Education and Discourse: Functional Approaches. (pp. 43-75) London: Continuum.

Johnson, E., & Newcomer, S. (2018). Funds of knowledge mentors: Partnering with Latinx youth to incite dispositional shifts in teacher preparation. Journal of Latinos and Education, DOI: 10.1080/15348431.2018.1531761

Kennedy, D.M., Cohen, L., & Bailey, T.A. (2002). The American Pageant: A History of the Republic. (13th ed.). Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

Lindahl, K., & Hansen-Thomas, H. (Ed.). (2018).  Engaging Research: Transforming Practices for the Middle School Classroom. Alexandria, VA: TESOL Press.

Mason, M., & Ernst-Slavit, G. (2010). Representations of Native Americans in Elementary School Social Studies:  A Critical Look at Instructional Language. Multicultural Education, 18(1), 10-17.

Moll, L., Amanti, C., Neff, D., & González, N. (2005). Funds of knowledge for teaching: Using a qualitative approach to connect homes and classrooms. In N. González, L. C. Moll, & C. Amanti (Eds.), Funds of knowledge: Theorizing practices in households, communities, and classrooms. New York, NY: Routledge.

National Council for the Social Studies. (2010). Executive Summary. Washington, D.C.: National Council for the Social Studies. Retrieved from https://www.socialstudies.org/standards/execsummary

Nieto, S., & Bode, P. (2018). Affirming diversity: The sociopolitical context of multicultural education (7th ed.). Boston: Pearson/Allyn and Bacon.

Salinas, C., Fránquiz, M. E., & Reidel, M. (2008). Teaching world geography to late-arrival immigrant students: Highlighting practice and content. The Social Studies, 99(2), 71-76

Sharkey, J. (Ed.). (2018).  Engaging Research: Transforming Practices for the Elementary School Alexandria, VA: TESOL Press.

Schleppegrell, M. J. (2005). Helping content area teachers work with academic language: Promoting English language learners’ literacy in history. Final Report for Individual Research Grant Award #03-03CY-061G-D. Davis, CA: University of California Linguistic Minority Research Institute.

Schleppegrell, M., & Achugar, M. (2003). Learning language and learning history: A functional linguistics approach. TESOL Journal, 12(2), 21–27.

Short, D.J. (1994). The challenge of social studies for Limited English Proficient Students. Social Education 58(1), 36-38.

Stewart, M., & Hansen-Thomas, H. (Ed.). (2019).  Engaging Research: Transforming practices for the high school classroom. Alexandria, VA: TESOL Press.

Szpara, M. Y., & Ahmad, I. (2007). Supporting English-language learners in social studies class: Results from a study of high school teachers. The Social Studies, 98(5),189–195.

Tharp, R.G., & Gallimore, R. (1988). Rousing minds to life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Zwiers, J. (2008). Building academic language: Essential practices for content classrooms, grades 5-12. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Zwiers, J., & Crawford, M. (2011). Academic conversations: Classroom talk that fosters critical thinking and content understandings. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

  1. As a point of clarification, the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) uses the phrase the social studies to refer to the overarching group containing diverse disciplines. When we refer to social studies or social studies classrooms, we mean subjects and locations in the context of K–12 public schools.
  2. The term funds of knowledge is used by researchers Luis Moll, Cathy Amanti, Deborah Neff, and Norma Gonzalez (2005) to refer to the historically accumulated and culturally developed bodies of knowledge and skills essential for household or individual functioning and well-being.


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Chapter 11: Unlocking the Language of Social Studies* by Gisela Ernst-Slavit and Joy Egbert is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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