Instructional Shifts for Social Studies

By Corbin Moore, Ohio Council for Social Studies President

The transition to Ohio’s New Learning Standards for the Social Studies and ELA Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts provides teachers with an opportunity to transform the social studies classroom.  When taught well, history and social studies courses engage students in an active examination of the past and the world in which we live.  Literacy and research skills are at the heart of effective social studies instruction.

The Ohio Department of Education (ODE) has identified four key shifts for the social studies:

  1. Change from seven standards to four conceptual strands
  2. Inclusion of skills for each of the strands embedded throughout grades K-8 and high school
  3. Building knowledge through content-rich nonfiction and informational texts
  4. Reading and writing grounded in evidence from text

The first two shifts are structural changes to the state standards documents.  ODE has changed the overall structure of the standards by changing/reducing the seven standards in the 2002 standards to four conceptual strands in the new standards document.  The four conceptual strands are:  History, Geography, Government, and Economics.  Social Studies Skill and Methods were previously a standards area, but now social studies skills are embedded into the four conceptual strands.  Skills topics include:  Historical Thinking, Spatial Thinking, Civic Participation, Economic Decision Making, and Financial Literacy.

The second two shifts are instructional shifts that incorporate the literacy standards outlined in the ELA Common Core State Standards (ELA CCSS)Documents.  First, social studies teachers must teach students how to use literacy skills to build knowledge through engagement in content-rich nonfiction and informational texts.  Students must also be taught how to use evidence from a variety of documents and text to defend their interpretations and judgments.  These shifts are also evident in the recently released College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Inquiry in Social Studies State Standards.

C3 Framework Organization

Dimension 1: Developing Questions and Planning Inquiries Dimension 2: Applying Disciplinary Tools and Concepts Dimension 3: Evaluating Sources and Using Evidence Dimension 4: Communicating Conclusions and Taking Informed Action
Developing Questions and Planning Inquiries Civics Gathering and Evaluating Sources Communicating and Critiquing Conclusions
Geography Developing Claims and Using Evidence Taking Informed Action

Throughout the state, districts have been developing curriculum maps and pacing guides based on the ODE Model Curricula for the Social Studies to address the structural shifts.  ODE provides several tools to assist administrators and teachers in the task of organizing units of instruction,  including videos, archived webinars, standards documents, model curricula, course syllabi, unit organizers, and standards deconstruction tools.

In his book FOCUS:  Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning, Mike Schmoker recommends that teachers strip “away most of the verbiage and focus instead on the raw content and topics in the social studies standards documents.”   One of the initial goals of the standards revision process in Ohio was to reduce the amount of standards per grade level and streamline the standards documents for teachers, but according to curriculum experts, like Marzano and Schmoker, teachers need to further reduce and deconstruct these standards to arrive at the workable learning targets for students.

To accomplish this Schmoker suggests that educators build units and lessons around overarching essential questions and instruction based on “task, text, and talk.”  In the “before” stage of the unit, teachers preview the tasks ahead by introducing 2 or more essential questions, outlining learning targets, pre-assessing student knowledge, and/or building background knowledge.  The “during” phase is filled with a variety of teacher and student centered activities and formative assessments to help the students master the defined learning targets for the unit (deconstructed from the state standards, which are the ultimate learning targets for the course).  For the “after” or summative assessments, Schmoker suggests “end-of-unit papers or essay question assignments.”  Assessing the students’ ability to analyze documents (e.g. historical documents, photos/artwork, political cartoons, charts, graphs, maps, and timelines) and to support their answers and conclusions with evidence is another critical area for teachers to measure student growth over time.  It may be an “old-fashioned message,” but teachers need to design instructional units and lessons that regularly engage students in reading, writing, and thinking about the past and how it connects to related and current issues and events (Schmoker, pp. 135-6).   

To further assist teachers with the instructional shifts, the Stanford History Education Group, (SHEG), led by Sam Wineburg, has developed two easy to follow and research-based programs,  Reading Like a Historian and Beyond the Bubble.  The need for professional development resources and tools to teach students how to read, write, and think like a historian has never been greater.  The history assessments at the Beyond the Bubble website are aligned to the ELA Common Core Standards for the Social Studies in grades 6-12, while the Reading Like a Historian site provides a four step process of analyzing documents (Sourcing, Contextualizing, Close Reading, and Corroboration).  The Reading Like a Historian Program has an award winning curriculum of U.S. History lessons and has RECENTLY RELEASED WORLD HISTORY LESSONS.  SHEG has created a RLAH YouTube Channel with instructional videos on their methods and strategies for both Reading Like a Historian and Beyond the Bubble.  Additional high quality instructional videos on the Reading Like a Historian approach can be found at the Teaching Channel website.

Reading Like a Historian Skills Chart

(Click on Chart to Enlarge)

The Reading Like a Historian approach is not just for secondary teachers.  Teachers at the elementary level are expected to teach students how to do the work of historians as well.  Ohio’s New Learning Standards for the Social Studies (Historical Thinking and associated Social Studies Skills) and the ELA Common Core State Standards for Grades K-5 (Reading Informational Text, Writing, and Speaking and Listening Skills) include expectations for students to analyze documents and compose historical narratives.  Teachers of younger students can utilize the same inquiry process modeled on Nickelodeon’s, Blues Clues.  This popular television program for preschool children requires students to gather information (clues), make connections, and draw final conclusions, which closely resembles the scientific method, the Reading Like a Historian Approach, and the Inquiry Arc outlined in the C3 Framework.  The Bringing History Home website and BHH YouTube Channel provide lesson and video examples for elementary teachers and their students.  

OCSS’s Social Studies with Reading, Writing, and Research at the the Core course brings together a solid collection of resources and best practices for “doing” social studies and reinforcing literacy skills.  Social Studies teachers have the challenge of creating learning targets and lessons based on two sets of state adopted standards, the Ohio’s New Learning Standards for the Social Studies and Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts, and the College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Inquiry in Social Studies State Standards.  The new teacher evaluation system demands that teachers show student growth in content knowledge, social studies skills, and literacy skills.  The transition will be challenging , but the change will serve our young people well as they grow and mature in their role as citizens.

Works Cited

Beyond the bubble: a new generation of history assessments. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Bringing history home. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Council of Chief State Officers, (2012). Vision for the college, career, and civic life (c3) framework for inquiry in social studies state standards guidance for states to use in enhancing their standards for rigor in civics, economics, geography, and history in k-12 schools. Retrieved from website: 12 12 Vision Statement College Career and Civic Life Framework.pdf

English language arts common core state standards. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Groce, D. Ohio Department of Education, (2013). four key shifts for the social studies

Ohio department of education social studies model curricula. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Schmoker, Mike. Focus, Elevating the Essentials. Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2011.

Stanford history education group. (n.d.). Retrieved from

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