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Reading Difficulties in Secondary Social Studies

What had I learned about reading in a social studies class?

1. Older students with low reading ability will avoid reading.
2. Students are aware of the inability to read and they tend to hide this problem from others.
3. A lack of reading ability in an older student can produce a large degree of hostility.
4. Although older students with poor reading skill may seem to be a lost cause, they are not a lost cause.
5. For many, if not most students, assigned classroom materials are inappropriate for instructional purposes and must be modified and/or supplemented.
6. Older students, like younger students, learn to read or improve their reading skills by reading. Reading, like any other skill, can become a habit that improves with practice.
7. Reading can become a social affair in a social studies classroom, and can be used to build relationships.
8. The inability to read at an expected reading level does great harm to a student’s confidence and a student’s sense of self-identity that may follow them through life.
9. Social studies learning demands a certain level of reading comprehension; thus these skills become social studies skills.
10. Most surprising of all, students with weak reading and comprehension skills can learn to read relatively well in a short period of time, provided that they read on a regular daily basis and have supervision.

My first teaching job was in Evergreen High School in Evergreen, Colorado. I was hired for the school year 1963/64. This was not our first visit to Colorado as we attempted to locate there after I graduated from Macalester in1961, which did not work out. After returning to Minnesota, I decided to go into teaching. I had worked for Ford Motor Company at their assembly plant in Saint Paul and enjoyed my time with Ford, but decided that I should try teaching. In 1963 a representative from Jefferson County schools in Colorado offered me a teaching contract in the ideal little mountain community of Evergreen. Once settled in a rented house, I went to the school to announce my arrival. The principal called me into his office and we visited about my teaching assignment: American History and International Studies. The International Studies course was for seniors. The principal then asked me a question. The question had to do with teaching a group of senior students who needed a course credit to graduate. At that time, I did not realize that these were students who had failed social studies. I was being led to the slaughter, as these senior students were virtually illiterate and some had been in some serious trouble.

On a bright sunny morning, on a cheery beautiful day, I came to the school to meet my students. Most of my classes consisted of typical high school students, very similar to the students that I had taught in West Saint Paul during a year of student teaching. At about two o’clock in the afternoon I was ready for the arrival of my small class of students in need of a credit. The boys and girls slowly drifted into my classroom and slid into an available seat. They were a mixed sad lot of kids, who quickly gave me the impression that they would rather not be there. I took the roll call, wrote my name on the board, and talked about the course and what I expected in the way of my program for them. They seemed unimpressed, and at the end of our time together they left in the same manner that they had arrived. The following day, I handed out the course materials and began to give the class a really interesting introduction. No response. I was deflated. Later in the week, having had little or no response to my presentations, I stumbled onto a revelation. I asked the students to read from a pamphlet. At first I had no voluntary responses, so I began to call on students to read. Some refused, and when I found one willing student, she stumbled over the words. Some words could not be pronounced, but the poor student attempted to sound out the more difficult words. I suddenly realized that I had a class of senior illiterates. Out of desperation, I headed for the principal’s office.

After meeting with the principal, it was decided that I could discard my planned program of instruction and do something else, but what? At this point, the principle was desperate to keep me in town, in the classroom, and with these students. A day or two later, I realized that these students could not possibly read their assigned social studies materials so I had to find some shared material that we could all address together. The principal agreed to order the Denver paper (a copy for each student in the class and the instructor). This was a fortunate choice, as this was a class in International Affairs, and the paper had a good section covering international events.* I still had a problem. The paper was written at about a seventh to ninth-grade level, but it had pictures and even cartoons. Another problem was that these students did not like each other. In other words, there was a great deal of animosity among and between these students and they all knew each other. I soon realized that this animosity, in part, arose because they had spent years together as identified “losers”. When they entered my classroom, they immediately realized that they were in the “losers classroom” and everyone in the school knew it.

The newspaper proved to be a very useful basis for the course. The kids loved the comics and the boys enjoyed the sports section, but this was not class business. I began with the newspaper by assigning each student an area of the world. They were to scan the paper and find something on or near their area. They were given markers to circle the article and the page number. In time I had them clip their articles so that each student could make their own scrapbook. But then the hard part came. Once a student found an article related to their area of the world they were to raise their hand and I would put their name on the board, along with the page reference. In the second half of the class period each student was asked to read the headline, and the article out loud to the entire class. This was going to be painful. It was embarrassing, and some of the students did not want to participate. Once it began, however, we all listened with interest, and we got to discus the reading. The break-through came when every student in the class came to realize that they were all in the same boat as far as reading was concerned.

As time progressed, they began to consult the classroom dictionary and some students even brought a pocket dictionary to class. One student read and we listened. Once the reading was over, we had questions, and curiosity began to build. This was in September, and so we read aloud for several months. Reading aloud with a diminishing embarrassment seemed to bring the students together in a greater friendship and understanding. They discovered that they even liked each other. When school resumed after the holiday break, the students were even excited about coming to class to resume their study of International Affairs. It was at that time that I decided on a new course of action. I decided to take the students to the library, a place to be avoided my many, to see if we could learn to do basic library research.

* In today’s world I would use the computer and web sites for such reliable sources such as The Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times, the New York Times, The Los Angles Times, The Chicago Times, etc. In addition, I would hope to have a classroom printer and, more important still, I would need to train some of these students in the basic skills of this technology. Although the students would continue to read their articles aloud and to make scrapbooks from a cut-and-paste approach, I also would spend time talking about the nature of sources that could be classified as primary and secondary sources from a historical perspective.
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