Have you ever struggled to teach history or social studies to your English language learners? This may be because the curriculum assumes that your students have prior knowledge about many things, such as historical figures or U.S. geography (Chamot, 2009). ESL researchers Schleppegrell, Achugar, and Oteiza, (2004) believe that textbooks about history/social studies are particularly tricky because they include specialized academic vocabulary, abstract concepts, and are often unclear about the subject/event to which they are referring. Anna Chamot (2009), who created a method for working with ELLs in the content areas, outlined these key principles for making social studies/history easier for ELLs:
· Integrate geography across all social studies/history units to help ELLs who are unfamiliar with the states and regions of the U.S..
· Use historical fiction books to introduce U.S. history or democratic concepts to young students. Examples of these include Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis, Baseball Saved Us by Ken Mochizuki, and many more that can be found here.
· Design your units of study to be chronological, theme-based, and include contexts outside of the U.S., such as the heritage countries of your students!
· Make sure your lessons include opportunities for ELLs to develop their academic vocabulary through listening, speaking, reading, and writing.
· History textbooks may be too tricky for ELLs! Outside resources, such as the EL Civics website, have easy-to-read texts and materials for young learners.
Here is an example of an instructional sequence that could be used for teaching history or social studies to ELLs (Chamot, 2009; Vaughn et al., 2009; Vaughn et al., 2017):
1. Activate prior knowledge: Use maps to discuss the geography of your students’ heritage countries, or integrate the oral history of their families into your units.
2. Provide explicit instruction in vocabulary: Teach 4-5 vocabulary words each week. First introduce the word and its pronunciation, identify a cognate/translation in the students’ native language, give a student friendly definition, use a visual representation, and show examples of the word in sentences.
3. Use videos: Videos, such as those from TeacherTube, and virtual field tripscan increase understanding! Be sure that you select 2-3 questions to guide the students.
4. Engage in critical readings of texts, with explicit instruction on vocabulary: These can be teacher-led, in partners, or in groups. Critical readings should be accompanied by several key questions that the students can discuss or write about. Plan to teach some strategies to your students to help them become “critical readers”, and understand concepts like author bias and compare/contrast.
5. Provide opportunities to use the language: Debates, cooperative groups, journal writing, and graphic organizers are great ways to engage your students with the language, and to build critical thinking skills.
6. Explicit instruction in strategies: Teach your students how to identify participants, events, and relationships in their textbooks, and how to decode maps, charts, graphs, and timelines.
7. Comprehension checks: Around two times a unit, design formative assessments to see what students still need help with! One idea is to do the same assessment twice, individually and then with partners. Hopefully, the partners will learn from each other!