I love teaching social studies. Learning about pioneers and westward expansion is always so exciting and interesting for my class. They are enthralled with historical pictures and stories of hardship and courage as they learn about early settlers heading west in covered wagons.
As a teacher though, my struggle is often how to fit social studies in to an already scheduled-to-the-minute day. With math and reading filling most of the schedule it can be pretty tricky to find time to teach social studies. Especially a topic as in depth and interesting as westward expansion. Read on to see how I solved this problem and learn lots of effective and creative ways you can address literacy standards while teaching social studies during your literacy block.
Teach Westward Expansion Related Mini Lessons
There are so many key figures and historical events related to westward expansion that I break it down into segments. Each day or two I introduce a new topic. Beginning with the Louisiana Purchase, we move forward in time. I teach mini lessons about the Lewis and Clark Expedition, The Oregon Trail, The Pony Express, and the Gold Rush.
We focus on inventions in transportation and communication too.
I introduce related vocabulary with each topic and students add it to their vocabulary booklets.
With each new event or invention introduced, we add a poster to our timeline.
Have Students Keep A Response Journal
As a way to check understanding and enable students to use the vocabulary they are learning, have students use response journals after each mini lesson. Students respond to the lessons by answering questions that require making interpretations, judgements, or giving an opinion.
Students also answer why questions that require recognizing cause/effect relationships as well as ones that require describing the connections between a series of historical events. That last part especially, is key when helping students to understand history. I use open ended prompts in writing journals too.
Understanding the Causes and Effects of Westward Expansion
As with most topics in history, events happen that then cause future events to occur. We use graphic organizers to show this. Students turn them in to tri-fold booklets. Inside, they define and give examples of the causes of the westward movement and the effects of this westward expansion on our new nation.
Build In Group Projects
Students later use the trifold booklets they’ve made during a group project.
Small groups of students work together to make a multi-flow map depiction some of the causes of westward expansion and its effects.
The year before I used this demo as an example and had student make individual posters.
Use Unit Vocabulary to Target Spelling Patterns
Inventions, modes of transportation, and methods of communication progressed dramatically during this time. That fact lends itself well to focusing on words with -sion/-sure and -tion/-ture as students learn about the invention of the steamboat, the telegraph, and the railroad.
Including activities like this gives students the opportunity to practice reading skills while reinforcing what they’re learning in social studies.
Teach Grammar with the Gold Rush
This is another fun way I like to address literacy standards using social studies content. We made these gold miner crafts to determine facts from opinions.
Students read information about key figures, events, and inventions and sort them by facts or opinions.
Gather Lots of Informational Books
For the longest time my teammates and I had a hard time finding nonfiction, westward expansion related books in a 2nd and 3rd grade reading level. Ones that students could read independently. Then one summer at a conference I was talking to an author friend. I just happened to ask if she had written anything on these topics and she had just submitted a series for publication! In the reading level I was looking for!
A few months later these gems arrived with inscriptions inside and everything. They are so perfect to use with this unit and every year my cool factor goes up a notch when at least one of my friends says, “Woah, Mrs. Kamp knows a real author!”. These are some of the books I’ve collected to use when teaching about westward expansion.
Note: The following book links are Amazon affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn a which a small commission from qualifying purchases.
Another book I like to use as we learn about pioneers is The Josefina Story Quilt. It’s a wonderful little book about a pioneer child and her family and the challenges they face as they head west to start a new life. Along the way, Josefina sews quilt squares that tell the story of their travels. Once sewn together they tell the events and memories of her family’s journey.
Each year I bring in a story quilt that I made for my daughter when she was in second grade.
Just like Josefina’s quilt, each square tells a story. One of our favorite past times together was to work in our garden. These squares show the flowers she and I planted that were her favorites.
Focus on Nonfiction Text Features
With all of the informational books students are reading, it’s a perfect time to focus on nonfiction text features. I gather enough books so that all students have their own book. Not all of the books are related to westward expansion, but all have a variety of nonfiction text features to work with.
My students traveled the Text Features Trail by writing about different text features found in their books.
First, students locate and explain the purpose of each feature and how they help us as readers.
Each description is glued onto long strips of brown butcher paper or construction paper.
Extend the Topic Into Small Groups and Centers
During small group reading time students use their books and locate multisyllable words, words they deem important, and words that are new to them.
In addition, we do some close reading of related passages and learn more about boom towns and a pioneer’s life.
There are so many ways you can use social studies content to address literacy standards. I hope you’ve found some creative and fun ways to teach about westward expansion during your literacy block!
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Need ideas for teaching about landforms and lifecycles during your literacy block? Check out these posts.
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