When I was teaching social studies in elementary school, I often found that while my ideas were endless, my planning time was limited. Despite my best efforts, I struggled to adequately prepare for all of my social studies lessons in a given week. It wasn’t until after several years in the classroom that I learned how to craft compelling activities featuring social studies content that were engaging and meaningful for students. The key? Cross-curricular learning.

“Cross-subject studies enhance critical thinking skills,” says Karen Smith, a 30-year ELA veteran and instructional coach for Maryland Public Schools. “Educators who teach and promote literacy skills in social studies classrooms enhance skills in all classes–not just for social studies and ELA.” Dynamic, multidisciplinary curriculum saves teachers time overall because it actually enhances the learning time spent in the classroom.

Beyond giving educators the chance to teach more than one discipline during a lesson, cross-curricular lessons also help students recognize the real-world application of their learned skills. According to Smith, social studies does not have to be separate from other subjects, but rather an essential and complementary medium through which educators can teach reading, writing, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills.

(Next page: 3 tools to deliver cross-curricular lessons)

Tools for delivering cross-subject lessons

I now work at Turnitin with an incredible team–many of whom are former educator–on tools like “Revision Assistant (RA), an online writing tool for modern classrooms that can be used in a variety of subjects. RA uses a sophisticated algorithm to provide students instant, relevant feedback on their writing. Teachers assign a standards-aligned reading excerpt with an ELA, social studies, or science focus. Students write a response to the text directly in RA and receive comments on specific sections of their essay, revise their piece, and strengthen their argumentative, analysis, narrative, or informative writing skills. With this tool, students take the writing process into their own hands, allowing the teacher to focus on content and skill-building across disciplines.

In 2013, after a three-year state-led collaborative effort, the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) released The College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework, a comprehensive resource for states looking to upgrade their existing social studies standards. C3 is a multidisciplinary framework that includes civics, economics, geography, and history concepts aligned to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for English Language Arts and literacy in history and social studies. RA recently launched historical-analysis prompts and rubrics aligned to the C3 Framework and to disciplinary literacy standards in the Common Core. Using C3 as a springboard, educators can create project-based units and daily lessons that emphasize inquiry, analysis, and student collaboration–vital skills across all subject areas.

Big History Project (BHP), a new, online take on history and social studies instruction, offers free, standards-aligned and classroom-ready lessons that cover everything from The Big Bang and evolution to world trade routes and the exploration of deep space. Co-created by teachers, students, curriculum experts, and tech developers, BHP delivers videos, lesson plans, and hands-on student activities that empower students to investigate and discover history, not just read about it. The project has already demonstrated clear student gains in reading and writing, in addition to the acquisition of social studies and history content knowledge.

As education in America continues to evolve, it is important that the resources available to teachers reflect changing perspectives. “It’s no longer enough to simply work on comprehension,” says Smith. “Critical thinking through reading and writing instruction is essential to success in the classroom and beyond.”

Additional resources

An Approach to Integrating Writing Skills into the Social Studies Classroom
Writing Across the Curriculum
Improving Writing Skills through Social Studies

About the Author:

Audrey Nelson is a former elementary school teacher whose passions include reading, adventuring, and dressing up as Star Wars characters to teach social studies. From Vermont and Connecticut to California and Costa Rica, Nelson has helped students all over North and Central America discover their love of learning. Now working for Turnitin, she helps to develop meaningful teaching tools for educators around the world.