Using Literature to Teach Social Studies

If you’d like to make the most of your instructional minutes while also helping students understand how different subjects connect in real life, then you’ll love this episode about blending history and literature in the middle school classroom.

Topics Discussed

  • Why you might want to integrate subjects
  • How to pair language arts and social studies topics
  • Some of our favorite books that lined up with the history curriculum


Take a closer look at Brittany’s History Minutes here:

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Brittany 0:00

Hey Ellie, Did you ever integrate or blend subjects together when you taught?

Ellie 0:05

Oh, I sure did. Uh, sometimes it was science and math, sometimes language arts and social studies, sometimes language arts and math or science.

Brittany 0:15

That's awesome and efficient teaching.

Welcome to the teaching Toolbox Podcast. Today, we're here to talk about the blending or integration of subjects. Integrating two subjects is so natural. For instance, social studies involves so much reading, research, studying, and understanding of the words of our ancestors, all things that require ELA skills, such as annotation, analyzing comprehension, summarizing, and more. So it just becomes natural to blend social studies and ELA together. Therefore, let's explore why you should and ways you can integrate the subjects.

Ellie 0:56

So why we should integrate subjects involves several factors, and we can look at a few other examples as well. Combining subjects can save time. Instead of taking the time to teach two separate subjects, you can spend all the time on the subjects blended together. And then you can go deeper, or you can spend only half the time to convey the same information that's needed. Blending subjects also allows students to see that subjects and material are not in isolation. For example, when I taught both science and math in sixth grade, I was able to reinforce topics that overlapped like metric measurement and conversions, or solving equations, we would learn to solve for a missing variable in math class. And then when we used formulas like distance equals speed times time, or density is mass divided by volume in science class, students would apply that knowledge of solving equations in different contexts to find any of the missing values in those situations. And having taught them how to solve equations in math class, I would be using the same equation vocabulary and solving methods in science class. So it was easier to teach those concepts in science. When I taught language arts, we incorporated current events into our language arts classes, and we shared those assignments and grades with the social studies teacher. So even though I wasn't teaching both things, we collaborated with the other teachers on the team. As part of that assignment students had to use talking to the text. So they were annotating asking questions, making connections, and then writing a summary. And they also had to present their current event to the class.

Brittany 2:38

Just like school subjects are not isolated, life is not in isolation, either. No matter the profession you choose to pursue, you have to know that profession's unique requirements, but you have to also know for instance, math, so that you can budget. You can know economics, when shopping, like what's the best pack of soda to buy, or the best pack of noodles to buy or whatever. You need to know math for recipes, to complete your taxes. And all of that you have to know language arts for dealing with mail, completing forms, enrolling kids in school, voting, and more. So everything is interconnected in life. So there are many different ways you can integrate language arts and social studies.

Ellie 3:31

So one way you can integrate those is to use biographies. For example, while you're teaching about Mexican independence, you can have students each pick an independence fighter, or a Spanish or American opposition fighter. Then have them read biographies of those people and have students read, share and summarize who they read about.

Brittany 3:52

You can have kids research a place or a topic when teaching ancient China have kids research a place in China or a topic in ancient Chinese. And then they'll work on their research skills such as creating an outline, making note cards, writing a bibliography, all those ELA skills, and then they can present a paper or a speech to the class.

Ellie 4:16

Awesome. That's a great idea. When I taught fourth grade, we studied the American Revolution. And students wrote newspaper articles about those events and important people to then create a newspaper, which was a way of incorporating informational or expository writing, and then we could kind of grade that for both things grade for the language arts skills, and then also grade for the American Revolution content knowledge.

Brittany 4:43

You can use articles to kick off a topic, depending on what time period or subject you're covering. You may be able to find articles from newspapers or magazines on the subject. Then you can pass those out to the students either individually or in small groups. Have them read, discuss, take notes on what they read, then pass the articles and start again, do that three or four times during the class period. And then next period have everyone share what they read and discovered.

Ellie 5:11

When I taught fourth and fifth grade, our district had purchased many class sets of the Dear America books and we read many of those as they lined up with what we were studying. I was kind of lucky that when I moved from fifth grade to fourth grade, our social studies curriculum changed as well and it all pushed down a year. So our fifth grade curriculum became the fourth grade curriculum. And so I could still use some of those novels. So that was a great way again, to have two ways to focus on the content. And then two ways to focus on the language arts skills.

Brittany 5:41

Nice. Those are very popular books. You can use other novels as well to utilize reading comprehension strategies. Something we often did was to utilize novels that applied to a time period we were discussing kind of like those Dear America books, or we kept social studies and ELA classes separate, but we were studying the same time period in time. So we were still blending those same subjects together. This took a lot of communication between the teachers to coordinate and schedule, especially not to ruin the outcomes such as when we were studying the French Revolution. We didn't want the literature teacher to read about Robespierre being guillotined before we did that part of the simulation in history class.

Ellie 6:32

Okay, yeah, that makes sense. So a lot of communication is important there.

Brittany 6:36

Yes. Another thing you can do is use history minutes. These are type of resource in my store where subjects are intentionally blended together. Social Studies is integrated with ELA, geography, and either math or science. Depending on the resource you choose to purchase. Students usually read a two page passage about the topic, they then complete an annotation and close note questioning, the questioning contains main idea questions, vocabulary, comprehension, a prove yourself section, and then a writing question with prompt. Then as mentioned, there's a geography page to work on. And then either some math work to read through and complete or a small science lab to do and then write about, and I have history minutes on little minutes in history that ended up changing time.

Ellie 7:31

Oh, that sounds amazing. I want to check those out. How many do you have

Brittany 7:35

about 18? Right now, I think

Ellie 7:37

Oh, that's awesome. That sounds fantastic. That makes it a really easy way to get all that integration. A few other ways to integrate the two subjects, history and language arts would involve maybe journaling, close reading annotations, interactive notebooks, and discussions through collaborative groups.

Brittany 7:58

You know, you mentioned above about using literature books that coincided with history class, we did that a lot. And we use a lot of books that coincided with our curriculum, how about we share some books that could help our listeners with their curriculum? And then we can help them not have to think about ones that they might want to pair together?

Ellie 8:20

Sure. That sounds great. What have you got?

Brittany 8:22

So the bronze bow fit in nicely with our Ancient Studies? And we also studied different religions. And so it's a Newbery winner. It's set in Israel, where a boy's father has just been crucified. And the boy is determined to rid Israel of Roman control. And so he becomes very hardened and angry until he meets Jesus of Nazareth.

Ellie 8:48

Oh, interesting. I have not read that.

Brittany 8:50

It's a it's a good book. And it's not even though it sounds like a religious book. It's not overly religious. So it's a good one. The Odyssey we read a children's version, that's no longer around. But the Puffin classic version is also very good. Okay. And it's great for ancient Greece, if you're studying that it follows Odysseus on his way home from the war with Troy. His trip home, which should just take a few days, ends up taking 10 years as he faces many dangers along the way.

Ellie 9:26

I feel like I may have read that in high school.

Brittany 9:28

Yeah, you definitely need an easier version if you're going to read it with middle school kids.

Ellie 9:35

If you're studying Africa, you could use a long walk to water. This one is based on a true story and covers the story of two 11 year olds in Sudan, who must go to fetch water and the dangers they face. Although their stories are separated by 23 years. They eventually intersect in an astonishing and moving way.

Brittany 9:56

It's a beautiful book,

Ellie 9:57

Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry is also an amazing book. This is a wonderful book for covering American history, the depression times, racism and social injustice set in Mississippi. It is a thought provoking book about a black family that owns their own land in the heart of the South, and the trials they face when interacting with white people.


For read aloud, studies show you should actually be reading something about three grade levels above where your students are at. So they will learn to hear and become acquainted with more advanced vocabulary, new styles of writing different sentence structures, etc. So they hear it long before they're ready to write it. That's great. And it starts to become accustomed in their brain before they're ready for it. So we would often read A Tale of Two Cities to our classes when studying the French Revolution.


Wow, that's another one I think I read in high school, but I haven't read it since. Well, Brittany, there are so many ways we can blend or incorporate subjects and create an activity or a project that can be used for two of our classes, or for our own class and another class of a teacher on our team. What advice might you offer to teachers who aren't already doing this?


If you aren't already doing this take some time to jot down topics that may overlap or can be blended well, brainstorms ideas for the rest of this year, or for next year. Have a chat with your teammates. See if anybody would like to do some planning with you. See if anybody's interested.


Hi, great idea. Well remember to check out the show notes for Brittany's history minutes and for all the book suggestions. We hope this episode gave you a few new ideas you can add to this aspect of your teaching toolbox. See you next time.



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