Increasing Content Acquisition for Second Language Learners in Social Studies Classrooms

May 18, 2017

Second language learners (SLLs) are an ever increasing population in educational settings (Cruz & Thornton, 2009). While an immense amount of work, pioneered by Jim Cummins and Stephen Krashen, has focused on language acquisition among SLLs and language acquisition versus content acquisition, it is key to remember there are specific challenges and obstacles facing SLLs in social studies content (O’Brien, 2012). In addition, the realities of school settings - district budgets, resources, teacher placements - have led to more heterogeneous language proficiency classrooms.


However, these classrooms, where native speakers and students of various language proficiencies interact, can be beneficial to all students who participate (Choi, 2013; Cruz & Thornton, 2009; Salinas, Fránquiz, & Rodriguez, 2016). This linguistic diversity can also be used to counter the difficulties SLLs most commonly confront in social studies (O’Brien, 2012):


  • The high volume of content-specific vocabulary use in text and instruction

  • Abstract concepts which characterize social studies content

  • The instructional strategies and perspective social studies is generally taught from


Content-Specific Vocabulary

While this is an issue all content areas have to deal with, it is especially prevalent in the social studies. There are innumerable instances where a certain person or concept is used for a specific piece of content (I’m looking at you, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and mercantilism), and while educators would argue they are vital to understanding the content (like Women’s Suffrage and colonial economics), they are easily lost in the shuffle among other important terms.


There are many supports which can be utilized to enhance the experience of both SLLs and native speakers while addressing this issue. Making content vocabulary visual is a great start. Students could always make their own pictures and visuals when they are first introduced to content vocabulary, as well as facilitating academic conversation between students of various language proficiencies (Colombo & Fontaine, 2007; Cho & Reich, 2008). If possible, combining the two can be powerful - have students create a visual of the content vocabulary, as well as a definition in their own words, and explain it to a classmate to reinforce their understanding while hearing someone else’s understanding of the concept or term.


Modeling these activities, such as taking more visual notes or having a short, academic discussion about vocabulary, takes practice, and may start with you scaffolding the activity with a worksheet or example shared with the whole class.


Abstract Concepts

Quick - draw democracy! Or maybe show me an all-encompassing picture of economics. While making vocabulary visual is a great idea, social studies is full of concepts and terms which are difficult to make concrete. Compounding this issue for SLLs is when an abstract concept in social studies also has an alternative meaning in another context (like the word “power”).


In these cases, it is more vital to address the multiple ways all learners, including SLLs, learn. Through academic discussions with other students, as well as interactive, role-playing activities (Cruz & Thornton, 2009), students are able to create meaningful learning utilizing multiple modalities. When students learn in a variety of ways, they are building knowledge that is foundational and allows them to access it in different ways later on.


Instructional Strategies and Perspectives

While I recognize you likely vary your instructional practices (I mean, come on, you use iCivics to help your students access knowledge in an interactive setting!), it is important to reflect on times where direct instruction can be limited further. Research suggest that although we are aware that SLLs, as well as other students, learn in a variety of ways, social studies instruction is still largely taught in a traditional, lecture-style (O’Brien, 2012). Additionally, social studies is generally taught from the point of view of the dominant culture, which often does not characterize all of our students.


As a social studies educator, I certainly wouldn’t say you need to get rid of direct instruction completely - introducing a quick concept, giving a piece of background knowledge, or getting students ready for a collaborative activity is sometimes most efficiently done through direct instruction. However, looking for opportunities to vary instruction, by allowing for collaboration between students, reading of primary documents, and implementing a gallery walk or scavenger hunt in your classroom, will make the learning more meaningful for students (Cruz & Thornton, 2009).


If you have students create something like a counter narrative, where they present a different point of view, they not only need to understand history from the dominant culture’s perspective, but they also employ historical inquiry to investigate the topic in a more relevant, meaningful way to their own identity and story (Salinas, Fránquiz, & Rodriguez, 2016). Not only does this create powerful learning for themselves, but it also allows their classmates to understand a different point of view than they may have developed in learning the content.


Cameron is a secondary social studies educator from California. He is currently pursuing his MA in Curriculum & Instruction from Baylor University. He spends much of his free time exploring with his wife, always searching for the best breakfast burritos wherever they go.



Cho, S., & Reich, G. A. (2008). New immigrants, new challenges: High school social studies teachers and English language learner instruction. The Social Studies, 6(3), 235–242.


Choi, Y. (2013). Teaching social studies for newcomer English language learners: toward culturally relevant pedagogy. Multicultural Perspectives, 15 (1), 12-18.


Colombo, M., & Fontaine, P. (2007). Building vocabulary and fostering comprehension strategies for English language learners: The power of academic conversations in social studies. The NERA Journal, 45(1), 46-54.


Cruz, B. C., & Thornton, S. J. (2009). Teaching social studies to English language learners. New York: Routledge.


Cummins, J. (1979). Linguistic interdependence and the educational development of bilingual children. Review of Educational Research, 49(2), 222-251.


Krashen, S. (1988). Second language acquisition and second language learning. New York, NY: Prentice-Hall International.


O’Brien, J. (2012). English language learners (ELLs) and social studies. In William B. Russell (Ed.), Contemporary social studies: An essential reader, 293–315. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.


Salinas, C., Fránquiz, M., & Rodriguez, N.N. (2016). Writing Latina/o historical narratives: Narratives at the intersection of critical historical inquiry and latcrit. Urban Rev, 48, 419-439.