Standards and policy changes in K-12 education have created the unintended consequence of reducing instructional time spent on social studies content. This limited time devoted to social studies presumably has led to more integrated social studies and literacy instruction. The purpose of this paper is to document the types of high-quality social studies children’s books found in classroom libraries across five states.
In the present mixed methods study, the researchers utilized a database of 60 classroom libraries across five states to identify which high-quality trade books, defined by the National Council for the Social Studies, were present. The researchers document trends in both frequencies of books and social studies content across decades, classrooms, grade levels and states from 1972 to 2015.
The findings indicate that National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) Notable Trade Books for Young People texts are largely missing from the elementary classroom libraries the researchers sampled. Of the 5,544 unique titles included on the NCSS lists from 1972 to 2015, 453 were located in the US classroom libraries database, representing 8.17 percent of books found on the notable lists.
Before teachers can take steps toward integrating social studies and literacy, they need easy access to high-quality social studies texts. Many high-quality trade books are recommended each year for exposing students to social studies content; however, the researchers found limited numbers of these books in classroom libraries. The researchers recommend the lists be circulated to a wider audience to inform more teachers about these texts.
Hodges, T.S., Wright, K.L., Coleman, J.M., Swain, H.H., Schweiker, C. and Mansouri, B. (2019), "Elementary classroom libraries and social studies trade books", Social Studies Research and Practice, Vol. 14 No. 1, pp. 14-27. https://doi.org/10.1108/SSRP-11-2018-0041Download as .RIS
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To date, the USA is facing turmoil on issues related to history and civics, which may be exasperated by the limited social studies instruction occurring in K-12 education (Burroughs et al., 2005; McMurrer, 2007; Fitchett and Heafner, 2010; Kimmel and Hartsfield, 2018). While teachers, scholars and policy makers have not intended to de-emphasize social studies, the cumulative consequences of this marginalization are coming to fruition. To complicate these issues further, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (2014) reported low social studies achievement by eighth grade students: only 18, 27 and 23 percent of students performed at or above the proficient level in US History, Geography and Civics, respectively. More concerning, these scores reveal no significant differences in performance since 2010 (National Center for Education Statistics, 2015). As evidenced by these statistics and studies, there is a substantive body of literature that demonstrates American students’ lack of social studies content knowledge.
One reason for the low achievement scores stems from social studies education’s limited instructional time in elementary schools (Denton and Sink, 2015). Since the 1970s, US education has seen many policy shifts including No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and the CCSS (National Governors Association, 2010) that have unintentionally marginalized social studies instruction. As a result, social studies often receives less instructional time in, or is even removed from, the curriculum (McMurrer, 2007). As teachers have seen their time allotted for social studies instruction decreasing, they have increased the integration of literacy and social studies in elementary classrooms. Recent research, however, indicates that the amount of “integrated” literacy and social studies time may still prioritize literacy outcomes over social studies content and skills (Heafner, 2018; Passe, 2006).
Social studies encompasses many areas of instruction and differing skill sets (Connor et al., 2017; Kenna and Russell, 2014; NCSS, 1994, 2013; Nowell, 2017; Sunal and Haas, 2010). Effective social studies instruction should integrate subject matter through cross-disciplinary approaches, which the many intersections in K-6 social studies’ state and national standards and the Common Core State ELA Standards (National Governors Association, 2010) necessitate. Moreover, the thoughtful use of high-quality children’s literature serves as a strong tool in ensuring social studies skills are mastered as the social studies standards require “students to frame questions, read for information, and organize primary and secondary sources to share their knowledge with classmates” (Britt and Howe, 2014, p. 158). Yet, the integration of social studies and literacy should come from experienced teachers with knowledge of both content areas.
Before teachers can take steps toward integrating social studies and literacy, they need easy access to high-quality social studies texts. Therefore, the purpose of the present study was to document the types of high-quality social studies children’s books found in classroom libraries across five states (Alabama, Michigan, Mississippi, New York and Texas). Specifically, the research team utilized a database of books found in 60 classroom libraries in grades 1, 3 and 5 (Wright et al., 2014), and determined which of these books also appeared on the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) Notable Trade Books for Young People from 1972 to 2015. The researchers utilized both quantitative and qualitative methods in the present study to present a portrait of the frequency and content which materials from the NCSS Notable Trade Books for Young People lists (1972–2015) are present in actual classroom libraries.
In the following sections, the researchers review how policies have influenced change in social studies instruction in elementary schools. Next, the researchers discuss how social studies instruction can be integrated using children’s literature to present more social studies content.
Review of policy influences on elementary social studies content and instruction
Researchers have documented the secondary status of social studies education in American schools since as early as the 1970s. Elementary teachers decreased instructional time devoted to social studies as they increasingly focused on reading and math (Gross, 1977; Heafner, 2018; Shaver et al., 1978; Weiss, 1978). This trend continued into the 1980s and 1990s (Thornton and Houser, 1996), as states began to standardize curricula and mandate state-wide tests (US Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 1992). In 1983, A Nation at Risk published by the National Commission on Excellence in Education reported pervasive teaching and learning inadequacies in American public schools including social studies education. Through the 1990s, states with social studies standards increased from 20 to 46 (US Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2003). At the same time, the History Wars of the 1990s spurred the controversy in how history and its role in the American classroom were viewed. The traditional view on historical teaching and learning focused more on supporting the learner in the acquisition of dates, events, places and figures to be memorized and understood. On the other hand, some historians offered a more critical and analytic view of teaching and learning to include the cultural, political, economic and sociological implications of history (Bender, 2009).
By 2000, 43 states required yearly testing of English language arts for at least one elementary grade; of these, only ten states also tested social studies (US Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2003).
In 2001, Congress passed NCLB, requiring states to adopt standards for reading and math and implement assessments of these subjects in grades 3–8 (Skinner and Feder, 2014). These high-stakes tests limited social studies instructional time in schools, as the priority shifted to literacy and numeracy (Fitchett and Heafner, 2010). Nationally, 62 percent of school districts reported having increased the amount of time spent on reading and math after the passage of NCLB; in the districts that reported such increases, social studies instruction in elementary schools decreased by an average of 76 min per week (McMurrer, 2007).
One consequence of the reduced social studies instructional time is low-performing schools have seen more discouraging impacts of NCLB than mid- and high-performing schools (Pace, 2011). Districts with at least one school identified as “needing improvement” reported greater decreases in social studies instructional time than districts with no schools identified for improvement (McMurrer, 2007). Taylor et al. (2003) similarly found that, in addition to allocating more time to tested subjects, teachers at “unsatisfactory” schools reported spending twice as much (or more time) on test taking strategies.
The reauthorization of NCLB in 2007 included a testing mandate for science, causing further reductions in time devoted to social studies instruction (Heafner and Fitchett, 2012). After 2007, elementary teachers now prioritized language arts, math and science above social studies, further pushing social studies instruction to the bottom of instructional time.
Integrating social studies instruction using children’s literature
When children enter elementary school, the school curriculum largely focuses on learning to read, a process beginning with phonology and extending to decoding, fluency and comprehension (RAND Reading Study Group, 2002). Often, lower elementary grades teach and develop these skills, so that children can read with automaticity and can think critically about what they are reading. Mid-way through elementary school, reading begins to shift so that children are reading for comprehension while continuing to increase their decoding and fluency skills (Neuman et al., 2016; Wright and Gotwals, 2017). This shift marks the beginning of disciplinary reading, in which children learn complex content from reading (Shanahan and Shanahan, 2008). At this point, the expectations around reading include multiple outcomes. Within the social studies curriculum, children read texts that help them to develop content and skills needed to understand topics related to culture, human experiences, government, globalization and civics, as well as connections to other disciplines ((Burroughs et al., 2005; Good et al., 2010; Heafner and Fitchett, 2012).
One limitation of integrating social studies and reading instruction is that teachers may not have intentionally planned integrated lessons, but rather, relied on the social studies books to provide some meaningful interactions with content (Boyle-Baise et al., 2008). In other words, the assumption is that children will learn social studies content by reading a book, even if instruction focuses on literacy skills. Furthermore, teachers often embed social studies in reading instruction by way of trade books (Tschida and Buchanan, 2015). Children’s trade books may be problematic if they are not thoughtfully integrated, as many books contain historical inaccuracies (Bickford, 2013; Bickford and Rick, 2014a, b, 2015) and overly rely on stereotypes for characters in books (Chick and Corle, 2012; Chick et al., 2010). Therefore, integrating literacy and social studies may increase some instructional time for social studies content, but it is not sufficient if the selected materials are not high quality.
The CCSS (National Governors Association, 2010) further encouraged the integration of social studies instruction into language arts by embedding social studies in the K-6 reading standards and promoting informational texts. State social studies coordinators across the nation reported feeling optimistic about the effects of CCSS on elementary social studies due to the standards’ emphasis on informational texts (Swan et al., 2016). However, some research works suggest that not much has changed in the wake of CCSS. For instance, Hawkman et al. (2015) found that 67 percent of preservice elementary teachers observed two or fewer social studies lessons over the course of an entire semester. Additionally, Denton and Sink (2015) found that integration with literacy instruction remains teachers’ preferred method of delivering social studies content. Nowell (2017) found that social studies teachers at all levels felt positively about the CCSS and were prompted by the standards to incorporate more writing and document analysis into their instruction.
From a literacy perspective, the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts (National Governors Association, 2010) stress the practice of using literacy skills and texts throughout the curriculum, particularly in the field of the social sciences. From the perspective of social studies education, the NCSS (2013) has also publicly acknowledged the relationship between the social studies and CCSS-ELA, with the publication of its College, Career and Civic Life (C3) framework. The C3 framework includes its Inquiry Arc to inform policy makers that social studies education requires student analysis of content while “fully incorporat[ing] and extend[ing] the expectations from the grades K-5 English Language Arts Standards” (NCSS, p. 7). With the C3 framework particularly focused on the teaching of civics, economics, geography and history, genres of literature introduced through children’s books are necessary (Chick, 2006; Lintner, 2009). However, the benefits of children’s trade books will only be seen if the teachers use high-quality materials and thoughtfully consider the perspectives and diversity presented.
The present study sought to quantify and describe the presence of NCSS Notable Trade Books for Young People in elementary classroom libraries in five states across the USA. Accordingly, the researchers utilized both quantitative and qualitative methods to present a portrait of the frequency and content of NCSS Notable Trade Books for Young People lists from 1972 to 2015. Specifically, the researchers focused on three research questions:
How many books from the NCSS Notable Trade Books for Young People lists (1972–2015) appeared in the sampled classroom libraries?
What trends in the frequency of books exist across decades, states, grade levels and quartile rankings?
What social studies content is represented by the NCSS notable books found in classroom libraries?
Notable social studies trade books for young people
The NCSS is a professional association founded in 1921. The NCSS Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People Review Committee select 100–200 books annually for the list. Committee members are selected based on their expertise in the relevant areas of social studies education, children’s literature, and noted work and research with children’s curriculum and resources. The process of trade book selection involves a yearlong review. Selected books are related to the ten thematic strands of the NCSS Curriculum Standard for the Social Studies and are based on the following criteria:
are written for children in grades K-12;
emphasize human relations;
represent a diversity of groups and are sensitive to a broad range of cultural experiences;
present an original theme or a fresh slant on a traditional topic;
are easily readable and of high literary quality;
have a pleasing format, and when appropriate, include illustrations that enrich the text; and
have citations, a bibliography or resource list when appropriate (CBC, 2017).
US classroom libraries database
In 2015, a team of researchers catalogued the total number of books found in 60 classroom libraries across five states (Alabama, Michigan, Mississippi, New York and Texas). The classroom libraries represented both high-achieving and low-achieving classrooms, based on state-level standardized test scores and included first-, third- and fifth-grade classrooms. The research team catalogued more than 50,000 books to create the US Classroom Libraries Database (Wright et al., 2014). This database includes the title, author, publication year and ISBN for each catalogued book, as well as information about the classroom in which the book was found.
The present study
In the present study, the researchers conducted a content analysis which included both quantitative and qualitative representations of books (see Krippendorff and Bock, 2009). The researchers created a spreadsheet of all books appearing on the NCSS Notable Trade Books for Young People lists from 1972 through 2015, totaling 5,544 unique titles. The researchers stopped at 2015 as this was the year data were collected for the US Classroom Libraries Database. The researchers then cross-checked the frequency and inclusion of those 5,544 titles against more than 50,000 books catalogued in the Database. This process provided detailed information about which NCSS recommended books appeared in a sample of classroom libraries from five states.
In total, of the 5,544 NCSS recommended titles, 453 titles appeared in the US Classroom Libraries Database. The researchers used this list of 453 books to examine trends across decades, by state, by grade level and by achievement quartile.
The researchers used the predefined ten themes of social studies to conduct a qualitative, thematic analysis (Creswell and Creswell, 2018; Saldaña, 2009). This thematic analysis allowed us to determine the social studies content represented by the 453 titles found in our 60 classroom libraries.
In the following sections, the researchers present our quantitative and qualitative results.
Notable books by the numbers
Total books and unique titles
Of the 5,544 unique titles included on the NCSS lists from 1972 to 2015, 453 were located in our US Classroom Libraries Database, representing 8.17 percent of books found on the notable lists. In addition to locating 453 unique titles, our database included 1,484 occurrences of those books, indicating that some titles were represented multiple times.
Differences across grade levels, states and quartiles
The first-grade classrooms included the fewest unique titles at 127, which represented about 28 percent of the unique titles found in our database and about 2.29 percent of the total books published on the notable lists. The third-grade classrooms included more than twice as many books as the first-grade classes, totaling 325 unique titles. These 325 titles represented 71.7 percent of the unique titles found in our database and about 5.86 percent of the total books published on the notable lists. Finally, the fifth-grade classrooms included the most unique titles at 390, which represented 86.5 percent of the unique titles found in our database and 7.03 percent of the unique titles published on the notable lists.
The researchers did not find differences by achievement quartile, indicating that children in top- and bottom-quartile schools had relatively similar, yet limited, access to the notable books. Top-quartile classrooms included 404 unique titles while bottom-quartile classrooms included 438 unique titles.
Trends by decade
Next, the researchers explored the decades in which the notable lists were published to determine if any differences existed (see Table I). After the 1990s, the number of unique titles began declining through the 2010s. Specifically, the researchers identified 24 (5.29 percent) unique titles from the 1970s lists, 78 (17.22 percent) from the 1980s, 169 (37.31 percent) from the 1990s, 137 (30.24 percent) from the 2000s and 45 (9.93 percent) from the 2010s.
In Figure 1, the researchers graphically represent these trends by the 453 titles. The years 1990 and 1995 are clear high points in terms of books published and found in classrooms libraries. Most interesting, there are several sharp declines in the mid-2000s and the 2010s. These dates occur within a few years of NCLB and the passing of the Common Core State Standards. For comparison, the researchers examined the total number of books published per year in the larger Database and found that teachers were purchasing new books for their classroom libraries each year. Our findings indicate that those books did not appear on the NCSS notable lists.
Notable books by themes
Since 2000, the NCSS has included ten thematic codes in the notable lists. In Table II, the researchers show the variation from 2000 to 2015 in the number of books found in the classroom libraries that represent each theme. On average, there were 124 copies of books representing each theme; however, the standard deviation was 94, indicating great variance across themes. These results highlight what content is more readily accessible to elementary students, and which aspects of social studies need additional attention.
Most prevalent themes of social studies
Three themes – Time, Continuity and Change; People, Places and Environments; and Individual Development and Identity – yielded total copies of text nearly one standard deviation above the mean (see Figure 2). People, Places and Environments had the most copies overall, but this number was skewed as there were 57 copies of Bud, Not Buddy (Curtis, 2000). There were less than half that number (n=23) of the next most popular book, Nasreen’s Secret School: A True Story from Afghanistan (Winter, 2010). According to the NCSS, the People, Places and Environments theme encourages students to understand how humans interact with their physical world – essential questions generally discussed in geography content.
Individual Development and Identity, the second most prevalent theme, helps students to examine the development of personal identity and how this is shaped by cultures, groups and institutions. Books in this category include some historical fiction, such as Esperanza Rising (Ryan, 2001), as well as dystopian novels, including The Hunger Games (Collins, 2009). The final prevalent theme, Time, Continuity and Change, encourages students to understand the present by looking at changes over time. The most common book representing this theme was Ron’s Big Mission (Blue and Naden, 2010), a picture book for early elementary students about an African American boy growing up in 1950s South Carolina who wants to check out books from a segregated library.
Least prevalent themes of social studies
Three themes of social studies were scarce amongst the collection – Production, Distribution and Consumption; Science, Technology and Society; and Global Connections. Figure 3 displays the numbers of books from each of the themes by year (please note the scale is much smaller than Figure 2).
Production, Distribution and Consumption yielded the least number of books – only 19 copies in all 60 classrooms. Books in this theme relate to economics and production of goods, such as The Cod’s Tale (Kurlansky, 2002), a story explaining how codfish have influenced global history. Science, Technology and Society had only six more books (n = 25), suggesting that social studies and science integration may need further development.
There were a total of 41 books representing the Global Connections theme. This theme supports students’ understanding of the global connections among societies and the reason for frequent tensions. Books in this theme included On the Same Day in March: A Tour of the World’s Weather (Singer, 2001) and The World Made New: Why the Age of Exploration Happened and how it Changed the World (Aronson and Glenn, 2008).
Our findings indicate that NCSS Notable Trade Books for Young People texts are largely missing from the elementary classroom libraries the researchers sampled. In this discussion section, the researchers suggest probable reasons for this absence.
Access to notable books and usability by classroom teachers
One question the researchers kept returning to is that of access to the NCSS Notable Trade Books for Young People Lists. The list is published annually in Social Studies and the Young Learner, a journal sponsored by the NCSS and provided to its members. When teachers enroll as a member in the NCSS, they have the option of selecting a journal to receive throughout the year. According to the NCSS website, the organization includes approximately 15,000 members, but not all of those members would choose Social Studies and the Young Learner as their annual subscription. Therefore, the researchers can determine that less than 15,000 educators have timely access the NCSS Notable Trade Books for Young People Lists each year. This alone greatly diminishes the number of teachers who may have access to these lists.
For teachers who know about the list and receive it annually, a second concern comes from the amount of funding available to purchase books, which are often newly published hardcover editions. School funding continues to face challenges and provides less and less support for teachers to enhance their classroom resources (Passe, 2006; Zhao and Hoge, 2005). While teachers may know about the list and agree that it is a valuable resource, they may not have the funding to make many purchases. As the notable lists consist of newly published titles, purchasing these books could become quite expensive.
Content of notable books available in classrooms
Unfortunately, our results indicate that some social studies themes are garnering much more attention than others. Books representing themes related specifically to geography and history were much more common than those related to STEM fields, economics and global studies. While the researchers cannot discern if the lack of books representing these themes is due to low levels of publishing or purchasing (i.e. are there a diverse collection of books representing these themes even available for purchase?), each of these underrepresented themes has consequences for the classroom.
First, there are reasons for elementary teachers to develop cross-curricular lessons – such an approach helps students to see the connection and relevance of multiple subject areas at once (Barnes, 2015). The lack of books representing the Science, Technology and Society theme suggests teachers may not have access to resources to support this endeavor. Second, research has demonstrated that high school coursework on the basics of economics and financial literacy has a positive impact on students’ future credit scores (Urban et al., 2018). It logically follows, therefore, that providing similar instruction weaved throughout the grades will better prepare students to make strong personal financial decisions. Yet, again, the lack of texts related to this topic may be a barrier to instruction.
Most notably were the relatively few books representing the Global Connections theme. The NCSS argues that this theme of social studies should help students to understand the connections and tensions between groups around the world, and research has demonstrated that reading about other people and cultures can help students to take the perspective of others (Hodges et al., 2018). Therefore, if teachers had access to a rich collection of books supporting Global Connections instruction, they may not only be able to help students understand tensions, but perhaps also how to work through those conflicts.
The present study provides a snapshot of social studies trade books, defined by the NCSS, that appeared in 60 elementary classroom libraries across five states. While only about 8 percent of the NCSS recommended titles since 1972 appeared in our classroom library sample, the researchers acknowledge some limitations. First, the sample of classroom libraries was limited to five regionally diverse states. Classroom libraries are ever-changing and evolving, and data collected today may provide a different snapshot of books. Despite these limitations, our findings reveal concerns for educators and document that social studies’ focused children’s books may be limited in elementary classrooms.
The present study poses several questions for future research and study. First, the researchers only catalogued the book titles found in classroom libraries and determined the specific social studies content those books included. The researchers did not examine how the social studies trade books were used by either teachers or students. A future study could examine how social studies trade books from the NCSS recommended lists are used in classroom instruction to promote social studies content knowledge and skills. A second area of research would examine more deeply the specific content children are exposed to through social studies trade books and how that content translates to social studies knowledge.
Implications, recommendations and conclusions
Many high-quality trade books are recommended each year for exposing students to social studies content; however, the researchers found limited numbers of these books in classroom libraries. The researchers recommend the lists be circulated to a wider audience to inform more teachers about these texts. Moreover, the researchers believe that targeted professional development can help teachers understand ways to integrate social studies meaningful back into their instructional time.
As education continues to shift, the researchers implore policy makers to be mindful about the unintended consequences of privileging specific content areas over others. Namely, this study reveals great deficits in reading material provided to children across the USA, likely impacted by the lack of policy focused on social studies. Historically, social studies instruction has been left behind as policy changes and classroom instructional decisions have privileged literacy and numeracy. This is not to say that literacy and numeracy are not important, but social studies knowledge and skills capitalize on critical thinking, decision making and social responsibility which are critical skills needed to live in a democratic union. In a time of great political dissent and violations of human rights, social studies is more important than ever to the development of the next generation of leaders.
Number of unique titles across decades
|Decade||No. of unique titles appearing in classrooms|
Total number of copies by social studies theme by decade
|Copies of books from each theme of social studies|
Notes: Themes of social studies are as follows: Culture; Time, Continuity and Change; People, Places and Environments; Individual Development and Identity; Individuals, Groups and Institutions; Power, Authority and Governance; Production, Distribution and Consumption; Science, Technology and Society; Global Connections; and Civic Ideas and Practices
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