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In the Trenches

Practical Strategies for Embracing Content Literacy


Why embrace content literacy in the Social Studies:

  • around 55 percent of academic language comes from Social Studies.
  • between 50-70 percent of NAEP passages are classified as informational text.
  • assists in the implementation of the shared responsibility for literacy in the Common Core.

**from "Broad Knowledge Drives Literacy" Herff Jones Achievement Series February 2012


5-3-1 Summary:

The 5-3-1 summary is an easy way to formatively assess the grasp individual students and groups of students have on the main idea of a reading selection. Students develop their own thoughts and then collaborate with group members and eventually the whole class to summarize their thoughts into a single word. First, students individually generate 5 words or phrases related to what they learned or read. Then, in their small group, the students share their ideas and choose 3 of those ideas to best represent their group’s summary. Next, the small group shares their 3 words/phrases with the class and the class narrows down the 3 ideas to the 1 word that best encapsulates main idea. This can be an endpoint as an assessment or a jumping off point for the formal writing of summary. 

Student Handout: 5-3-1



Six Word Essay: 

There have been many variations on the 6 Word Short Story/Memoir/Essay. This summary challenges the students to be creative when working with their word choice as they summarize an “essay” into just 6 words.

To see the student's thinking and reasoning behind their 6 Word Essay, an additional assignment would be to have the students justify their choices. What was the original list of brainstormed words? Why did the student choose not to use some of those? How did the student determine those 6 were the best?

Student Handout: 6 Word Essay



4 Minute Comprehension:

This is a quick formative assessment to assess how well students are comprehending their reading. Have students read silently for 1 minute. Then, signal for them to stop reading and have them write down what they remember for 1 minute. Have students reread the same passage for another minute. Then, stop them and have them write for another minute about any new information they remember from the passage. 

Student Handout: 4 Minute Comprehension



Tweet it Out

In this summarizing activity, students "tweet" their summary of the reading/learning in only 140 characters. By limiting the amount of words, students are forced to be concise and specific. But before they summarize, they must first make a choice. On the handout, there are 3 boxes in which they could write their summary and the student chooses the box in which to write the summary based on their self- assessment of the learning. If a student feels confused and needs help, then he or she would write the summary in the #HelpI'mLost! box. If a student is feeling pretty good about the content, but doesn't feel as though he or she has mastered it, then the summary would go in the box, #FeelingGoodNotGreat. Finally, if a student feels very confident in his or her understanding of the material at hand, then the summary goes in the #KnowIt100% box. The teacher then gets to see the students' summary of learning and also the students' self-assessment of learning. 

Student Handout:Tweet It Out


Four Reads:

Four Reads is a great strategy for teaching students how to close read primary source documents.  Students read any assigned document four times, each time with a different focus.  With each reading the focus deepens, requiring students to record their analysis in the corresponding response box.  Beyond close reading, this also a great strategy for teaching students to identify claims and supporting evidence in historical documents!

Student Handout: Four Reads


Partner Analysis:

Partner Analysis is a twist on the Stanford Education Group’s Reading Like a Historian (RLH) method for document analysis.  It utilizes the four steps of the RLH approach: Sourcing, Contextualization, Close Reading and Corroboration.  The twist is that students partner up and each read one perspective on the same event and completes the first three steps individually.  Then, students meet up with their partners and share their version of the document, discovering and discussing differences.  Finally, the students complete their analysis by selecting the more credible claim.  This strategy is a great way for differentiation, allowing for mixed ability grouping and strategic assignment of reading passages.

Student Handout: Partner Analysis


Claim/Evidence Graphic Organizer:

The Claim/Evidence Graphic Organizer is an assessment tool for the analysis of primary source documents and varying accounts of the same event.  It requires students to construct an argument is response to an open-ended question.  First, students generate a claim that answers a stated question, such as, “Did Pocahontas save John Smith?” Then, students cite two pieces of evidence from given documents that support their claim.  Finally, students explain how the evidence they’ve selected supports their claim and cite their source information.  This tool can be used as a stand-alone assessment or as a prewriting tool for an argument essay.  The graphic organizer was developed to be used with Reading Like a Historian lessons, but can be easily adapted to be used for all argument writing assignments. 

Student Handout: Claim/Evidence Graphic Organizer


Entry Points for Interdisciplinary Instruction:

Embracing Content Literacy principles and practices in the Social Studies classroom provide several entry points for parallel teaching and interdisciplinary instruction.  All of the strategies promoted on this page support the Common Core English Language Arts Standards for Social Studies in the 6-8 grade band.  Also, a well completed claim/evidence graphic organizer can be the jumping off point for an English Language Arts teacher teaching argument writing, saving him or her time by omitting the topic selection and research steps of the writing process.  Finally, Intervention Specialists may find these strategies valuable to use to pre-teach documents being used in the Social Studies classroom, giving students’ confidence to actively participate in document analysis and class debate and discussion!