Book Club: Reading History – A Practical Guide to Improving Literacy


Why have it: Improve literacy instruction in history classroom.

In a few words: No matter how hands-on you want your class to be, there is no avoiding the history textbook. Literacy is crucial and you would be negligent if excluding the textbook is on your agenda. Providing adequate supports to make the textbook accessible and engaging is our job. Janet Allen’s and Christine Landaker’s guide covers assessing and building background knowledge, comprehension strategies, textbook and historical document supports, and assessment and extension strategies.

Janet Allen says: “As money for engaging resources decreases and the demand for content knowledge increases, many teachers are depending on the textbook as a primary source for classroom instruction. Even proficient readers can experience failure under these conditions, and struggling readers simply refuse to make the attempt. The difficulties these students face because of their lack of background knowledge for the content, their inability to negotiate the supports and challenges of academic texts, or their unfamiliarity with specialized content vocabulary make both the teaching and learning of history overwhelming.” She goes on to say, “we have not viewed social studies standards as content to be covered; rather, we have used them as a frame for designing curriculum, instruction, and assessment that is meaningful and memorable.”

Best uses: With an extensive appendix, I have found these reading strategies the most useful:

1. Skimming and Scanning: a graphic organizer to help students “organize their thoughts by looking at three processes: acquiring first impressions, gathering information, and, using those first impressions and fast facts to generate some final thoughts prior to reading”. See this strategy in practice.

2. Exclusion brainstorming: used as a pre-writing or background knowledge assessment, teacher provides a list of words (including related and unrelated words), students cross out unrelated words to exclude, circle related words to include, and add words newly discussed or that they already know about to enhance the discussion, lesson, or writing piece. Students can share their lists and then add to their list based on group discussion. Can be done in a chart format as done in this Civil Rights Era example.

3. Textbook Scavenger Hunt: provide students with a blank template of a textbook spread that includes a good number of text supports; students label the text supports and discuss the meaning of each one; this activity encourages students to examine headings, captions, marginal notes, etc. Once students understand the meaning of each text support, teacher can provide students with a Textbook Activity Guide (TAG) which directs students where to look in the text to find certain information (i.e. Look at the map and map key on page 42. List three resources people of the mid-atlantic colonies had access to, and predict three jobs they might have.)

4. Content Brainstorming: Use a graphic organizer that highlights the text supports provided in a chapter. Have students list key words, make predictions based on pictures, list headings or sub headings, and finally make predictions and ask questions based on what they read. Click here for a template.

Book Club: Teach Like A Champ

Need a refresher before returning to school, Teach Like a Champ is the answer to the calling. This is a quick and dirty breakdown of the actions that effective teachers do, you know the ones that aren’t necessarily publish-worthy strategies. The names are easy to remember, the descriptions are easy to follow, and the video serves as affirmation that the little things you do are actually quite important if you want to run a productive learning environment.

Book Club: Never Too Late To Honor Those Who Serve

I don’t repeat much year after year, with the exception of reading a few timely selections to my classes.  Although Veteran’s Day has come and gone, I don’t think it hurts to remind our students to honor our soldiers.  America’s White Table (Margot Theis Raven) is a quick read aloud that tells the story of a young girl preparing a white table in honor of her Uncle’s sacrifice.  Every Veteran’s Day, this book is read aloud on our schoolwide broadcast station and a white table adorned with the symbolic objects is displayed in the front of the school.

Book Club: Christopher Columbus Villain or Hero?

Although Columbus Day has come and gone, Thanksgiving welcomes another opportunity to hit home the “Villain or Hero” concept through Jane Yolen’s, The Encounter.  A young Taino Indian tells the story of Spanish explorers arriving in his native land.  As the story unfolds, the young boy warns his people that the explorers seem attracted to their riches rather than friendship.  I highly recommend this book and find myself rushing through September and October’s curriculum (who isn’t rushing?) so that I can coincide the explorers unit with Thanksgiving.  Be prepared for students to be highly engaged in this picture book which includes many instances of symbolism.  The beautiful story lends itself to serving as an appropriate read aloud, resulting in a correlated language arts lesson or activity.