Critical Comprehension of Social Studies Texts
George Orwell’s adage
that “history is written by the winners” is often
repeated in classrooms around the country. But the knowledge that
our standard history is only one version of past events is rarely
acted upon when considering alternative pedagogies or content.
All too often, we educators acquiesce, repeating the winner’s
version of social studies written in the textbooks and failing
to recognize that we are not fulfilling our pledge to a country
that, ideally, strives to treat people fairly regardless of their
beliefs, power, or socioeconomic status.
Examples of this “winner’s bias” in textbooks
are common, but since we are so familiar with history as it’s
been taught over the years, they are hard to recognize. Take,
for example, one line in a typical eighth-grade social studies
text that describes the death of approximately fifteen million
native people in South and North America as a result of disease
when Europeans first explored and immigrated to the New World.
There are whole chapters in the same book that describe exploration
of the Americas and the European–American movement to the
western territories of what is now the United States, but only
one line concerning the fifteen million natives who died during
and as a result of this expansion. The fact that so little is
written concerning this extremely important fact in U.S. history
is evidence of bias in this social studies text.
It is unjust to Native Americans to minimize or to avoid discussing
the toll of disease shortly after the first European immigration.
When one begins to think in this manner, other problematic issues
inherent in the way we typically think about our history begin
to emerge—both in relation to issues of fair representation
and issues of truth. Most U.S. history books discuss Pre-Columbian
Native Americans in several chapters, but issues of power and
perspective are given limited consideration. Typical texts do
not explore the inevitable effects that the sudden weakening and
deaths of so many native people had on the rapid immigration and
expansion of European immigrants in the U.S.—and how that
makes our country so different from British colonies in Africa
or India. In contrast to their experiences in Africa or India,
European Americans had a relatively easy time moving in and homesteading
the land vacated by the natives. By avoiding this topic, some
social studies texts also leave other important issues unaddressed,
such as the unintended negative consequences of easy travel and
the evolution of diseases. These issues are not only of concern
to Native Americans but to all people.
This emphasis on the “winner’s perspective”
presents a skewed view of history that allows readers to make
incorrect assumptions about the identity and character of European
and Americans—both past and present. These incorrect assumptions
allow readers to construct a view of themselves and others that
may lead to further oppression. Therefore, it is important not
to limit students to one particular version of history. Instead,
in order to dismantle forms of institutionalized oppression, they
should be allowed to explore other perspectives that give voice
to those marginalized by society. Critical literacy is an approach
to comprehension that encourages the reader to identify and dismantle
the perspectives of power and the biases in texts.
One of the main principles of
critical literacy, or critical comprehension, is its demand for
an honest consideration of explanations and stories that give
equal weight to the perspectives of the poor and marginalized.
Critical literacy is a term used to describe the way that readers
(and viewers) can challenge texts, films, conversations,and pictures
that privilege the perspective of the status-quo “winners”
in histories and in stories. This dialogue with the text is used
to challenge the defenders of the status-quo system who support
a history that marginalizes people on the basis of ethnic group,
gender, or even philosophy. In the end, the goal of a critical
literacy approach is to actively pursue the ideal of “liberty
and justice for all.” Practitioners seek to reach this goal
by encouraging free thought and by transforming existing systems
to provide access to alternative points of view.
There is no guaranteed lesson
plan that will result in critical comprehension; rather, teachers
should focus both on establishing the classroom conditions for
critical work to take place, and on ensuring students are in the
correct mindset to perform the work. First, critical literacy
requires that a reader or listener be open to understanding the
content and perspective presented. Teachers will find that many
existing practices can help to reach this first goal. Most texts
on reading comprehension cover a range of techniques aimed at
helping students achieve a more complete understanding of text—including
ways to talk about ideas, graphic organizers,and, for narrative
texts, story maps.
Secondly, instead of merely accepting the storyline and automatically
adopting the author’s perspective, readers must enter into
a kind of challenging dialogue with the text—looking around
it and behind it, not for what is in the text but for what is
left unsaid. This dialogue, like any good conversation, starts
with an acknowledgement of what the author is saying. What are
the messages of the text? Who or what is named in the text? Why
did the author choose to write about these topics? Who is missing
from the text? How does the text portray marginalized people?
Who or what style of life looks good or bad? What kind of work
does this book do in the world?
Like most patterns of thought, the ability to approach a text
as one of many possible perspectives on a topic is not an easy
habit to acquire. To effectively integrate this kind of challenging
dialogue into a student’s repertoire of skills, the student
must practice dialoguing with texts over many months.
To foster this type of critical analysis, teachers must allow
students extra time to get acquainted with the story, and then
more time to begin challenging the inherent assumptions of the
text. In total, the reader must not only be able to summarize
and analyze the ideas in the text, but also want to go beyond
the simple summary or analysis and challenge the author’s
choices and intentions. To be successful, critical literacy has
to be interesting and engaging for students so they have the desire
For example, after reading a description of Andrew Jackson as
an advocate for the common man in a social studies textbook, students
often find it refreshing to challenge that stance by thinking
about his attacks on Native Americans and his advocacy for their
removal, culminating in a forced march west in which thousands
of natives died. It is also interesting for students to challenge
typical depictions of Thomas Jefferson as a promoter of liberty
and independence by thinking about the implication of his slave
ownership. Students also get interested in rewriting their history
textbook when exploring what the chapters in such a book might
look like if African Americans, Native Americans, or Mexican
Americans were writing the textbook. These new ways of thinking
not only make history fascinating and sometimes shocking, but
also tap into adolescents’ natural urges to challenge authority,
reject the status quo, and make the world a better place.
Finally, although critical perspectives can be taken on just
about any text, it’s best to start by encouraging critical
literacy with interesting texts that contain some controversial
content. In this way, readers will naturally be attracted to the
text in question because of its inherent interest. They will also
be able to more easily identify the author’s intent; what
is favored and marginalized; what other perspectives are available
on the topic; and what action to take.
Making Challenge a Natural
Many people naturally acquire skills like critical analysis just
by having conversations with people who are proficient at politely
challenging the status quo. When this “knowledgeable other”
makes critically astute comments over time, listeners may eventually
acquire similar patterns of thought. Whether this happens over
the dinner table, at cafés, or during long trips in the
car, a skilled critical thinker can affect the thought patterns
and responses of a willing learner. Similarly, teachers who model
critically literate behavior as they teach will effectively set
the stage for classes rich in critical thinking.
For example, after reading a text to the class about how the
cold war was a competition between the communist and capitalistic
economic systems, a teacher might challenge the ideas in the book
by providing a counter-textual argument suggesting that capitalism
and communism were only pretexts for first-world nations to dominate
developing countries, taking out their raw materials, profiting
from their cheap labor, and acquiring a market to sell one’s
goods in. If this kind of challenging occurs in a single lesson
or a week’s worth of lessons in a classroom, students will
probably not integrate critical literacy into their daily skill
set. However, if teachers use the skills frequently when responding
to daily information, students will learn these techniques naturally.
As efforts to introduce critical literacy into classes progress,
one may wish to provide students with a standard question or list
of questions that will help to identify power relations in a text:
1. What or who is favored in this text?
2. What or who is marginalized?
3. What are other perspectives on this topic?
4. What action would you take to create justice?
These questions could be used, for example, when examining the
ideas in the movie 300, an action/adventure film about
ancient Greek Spartans who fought to stop an overwhelming Persian
army in Thermopylae in 480 b.c., a topic sometimes studied in
sixth-grade classrooms. Based on the questions listed above, it
appears that proud warriors and the Greeks are favored, whereas
making peace, negotiation, and Persians are marginalized. Other
perspectives about the Spartans might have depicted the combative
and ruthless life of King Leonidas culminating when his family
grieves his beheading in a battle after which his head is paraded
around on top of a pole. In contrast to the original story, this
alternative version of the story foregrounds the disgrace and
sadness that surrounds war, thus questioning the idea of war as
an effective solution for resolve conflicts between people. Students
might also examine the Persian King Xerxes’ perspective
as he seeks to avenge what he perceives as the casual assassination
of the peace negotiators he sent to the Spartan King Leonidas.
To answer question number four, students might contrast the nature
of war with the movie’s depiction of war and present their
findings to the class and to their families. They might also write
a letter to the editor of the local newspaper (or to a blog) concerning
the role of the movie in glorifying such a horrible human event.
The questions and resulting discussions can be powerful tools
to aid active viewers and readers in comprehending not only the
literal meaning of the text, but also in helping them recognize
the work that texts do to persuade people to believe in certain
Multiple Characters in History
While history textbooks and historical fiction can provide a useful
starting point for an understanding of historical events, teachers
and students can continue by investigating the perspectives of
a range of different kinds of people for any single historical
event. Students can be assigned different characters to play,
and then small groups can be assigned to assemble data for their
characters. Throughout their research, students should prepare
some diary entries, a fact sheet, and a reference list of primary
and secondary sources. Depending on the age and skill of the students,
teachers will have to either provide information for them, give
them a list of Web sites, videos, and readings, or let students
go to explore the library and Web on their own. In most cases,
if teachers allow students to explore the Web, they will have
to guide the students on how to search using a search engine like
Google, Ask.com, or Yahoo.
After teachers provide some mini-lessons about searching for
information, organizing the information, and writing up the different
formats of the information, they should meet with the different
groups of students to assess their progress and to provide encouragement
and guidance. This activity would culminate in a short skit or
oral presentation, in which students would dress up as their characters
and perform in front of the class.
For example, if a fourth-grade class wants to study the California
gold rush, the teacher could allow students to choose from among
different perspectives on that time period, each of which would
be represented by a distinct character—a Chinese man, a
Native American, a Californio woman, a teenage girl from Boston
who came by ship, Joaquin Murietta, a shop owner, and a man in
search of gold. If the class forms a rubric on what makes a quality
assignment for each of the different segments referenced above,
they will be much more thoughtful and goal oriented when they
do their gold rush character assignments. To wrap things up, do
a dress rehearsal in front of the whole class and then invite
parents in to see what the class is doing.
The teacher and the students should make comments about each
of the different characters during the presentations so that the
class begins to see that history can be told from many different
perspectives. By having students in each group play the part of
the different ethnic groups and genders, while encouraging them
to focus on the differences between the characters, students will
be more likely to envision history in multi-perspective, complex
ways, thus avoiding the linear (and frankly, suspect) single-perspective
treatment that social studies texts often present.
Juxtaposing Different Perspectives with Books During Thematic
During reading times, students can learn about different perspectives
by reading and listening to several different books on one historical
topic. Famous historical topics, such as the relationships between
native and European populations during colonial America, might
be a good way to start such a thematic literature study because
of the wealth of literature available on such subjects.
First, when teachers select books to read to the students, the
book should be one that describes a story about a historical topic
from a distinct perspective. Then teachers should provide book
sets of other titles that offer different perspectives about the
same historical event. After the teacher has given a book talk
on each of the titles and has allowed the students to choose one
of the titles to read, the teacher can then rotate to meet with
small groups of students, guiding them through the reading of
the books and preparing them for student-led discussion groups
such as literature circles.
For the first twenty minutes each day, read and comment on the
text you’ve chosen to present, modeling what you want students
to do when they get into their literature circles. As you’re
reading, ask questions that disrupt the author’s perspective
and provoke discussion in a student-led discussion group. Most
of the time students could meet every other day to discuss interesting
issues in their own book, but every week the students from each
group should pair up with a buddy and present a summary of their
book to help inspire understanding. This summary should be followed
with a discussion about the differences between the perspectives
presented in their book and the perspectives presented in the
books the others are reading. In this way, the students get to
talk about each of the different perspectives on a historical
event and understand the historical events in complex ways.
For example, Trouble River by Betsy Byars would be a
good choice to read aloud. In that book, a boy named Dewey and
his grandmother escape attacking natives and float down a raft
on the Mississippi. The other titles should have different perspectives
on the relationships between Native Americans and European Americans.
A book that describes the cooperative yet strained relationship
between two boys is Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth Speare.
Another reading group could read a couple of shorter books such
as Blue Feather’s Dream by Knight, which describes
the natives fears of being pushed out of their homeland. All of
these books tell different stories about the relationships between
European and Native Americans during colonial times. Taken as
a whole, they will give students a sophisticated view of the people’s
lives during that period.
To prepare students to quickly
analyze and evaluate the large amount of information available
to them in social studies, teachers should work actively toward
helping students develop and hone their critical comprehension
skills. If schools only teach the social studies content typically
found in standard textbooks, they are leaving students vulnerable
to manipulation by texts, movies, or media that may seek to control
popular opinion for their own purposes. Schools need to prepare
students not just to learn information, but to learn strategies
that will help them understand the perspectives behind the way
the information is presented and what other perspectives may exist.
These tools will not only help close the achievement gap, but
they will also be a step in helping all Americans live out the principles of their pledge for “liberty
and justice for all.”
GLENN L. DeVOOGD serves
as a professor at California State University, Fresno, where he
teaches courses in literacy development, children’s literature,
and research methodology. Dr. DeVoogd co-authored Critical
Literacy: Enhancing Student Comprehension of Texts which
is published by Scholastic. A graduate of Muskegon High School,
Hope College, and Michigan State University, Dr. DeVoogd taught
elementary school in East Lansing for sixteen years.
Byers, B. (1989). Trouble River.
New York: Puffin.
Knight. (1998). Blue Feather’s Dream: The Dawn of Colonial
America. New York: Troll.
Leistyna, P. & Woodrum, A. (1996). Context and Culture:
What is critical pedagogy? In P. Leistyna, A Woodrum and
S. A. Sherblom Breaking Free: The Transformative Power of
Speare, E. G. (1999). Sign of the Beaver. New York: Yearling.