How Customized Reading Guides Can Enhance Your Social Studies Classroom

By Cynthia Resor Literacy

When I ask students to read in my social studies classes, I always assign a customized reading guide created especially for the assigned text. The reading assignments may be textbook chapters, primary source texts, news articles, or even selections of relevant fiction. Many “generic” reading guides are available, but taking extra time to create a reading customized to a text as well as the larger lesson and unit objectives results in higher-level learning.

Students sometimes groan and complain about “busy work.” However, I explain at the beginning of the school year the following reasons why reading guides are important. Why do I love customized reading guides, and how can they enhance your own social studies classroom?

Student Accountability

Reading guides hold students accountable for reading the text. Let’s face it: we have all been guilty in our educational careers of not reading an assigned text when we know we are not graded for it. It’s easy to fake knowledge of a text in a class discussion by simply agreeing with others or saying nothing. In my classes, students receive points for a completed reading guide. I don’t collect these papers and check every answer, but I do walk around the class and view each guide, checking for completion and assigning ten to twenty points for a complete guide and half or zero credit for a partially completed or blank guide. Reading guides give students a reason to do the work. A bonus is the brief time I spend with each individual student to discuss challenging questions or other issues.



Inquiry-based Learning

Carefully constructed reading guide questions aligned to the lesson or unit objectives help students pinpoint key takeaways from the text. Questions on my reading guides range from the basic fact and vocabulary questions to those demanding higher-level thinking. Some questions ask students for their opinions. While gifted readers can often do this on their own, many students struggle to figure out exactly what the teacher wants them to know. This is especially important for struggling readers. Over time, consistent use of carefully crafted, customized reading guides helps struggling readers pinpoint the key points in a text on their own. My reading guide grading system does not penalize students for a few wrong answers, only for a lack of effort to complete the guide.

Group Discussions

My reading guides serve as discussion starters or lecture note outlines. I tailor questions on my guides to the key objectives for the activities to follow. When students read, they gain basic knowledge of the topic so discussions can be more in-depth. If lecture follows the reading, students don’t have to struggle to take notes; they are asked to add key information from the lecture alongside the relevant section on the reading guide. The information for a reading guide can serve as the starter for a wide range of cooperative learning activities as well. Throughout the activities following a reading assignment, students may discover their original answer was incorrect. I encourage students to correct their mistakes or misunderstandings as we refer to the guides during activities.


Repeated Reading

Learning requires repetition, and reading guides provide that repetition and structure. I explain to my students that people are much more likely to remember something if they see it, use it, and think about it multiple times. First, they read the text. Second, they write answers or notes on the guide about key points. Third, they refer to the guides multiple times during the learning activities that follow. Fourth, after two or three guides are completed in a unit, they can use their own completed reading guides for what I call “notebook quizzes.”

The questions on these quizzes are created to align exactly with the reading guides and the unit objectives. I grade the quizzes, return them, briefly review the answers, and encourage students to correct any missed answers. These notebook quizzes become study guides for the students and a test bank for me to create the overall unit exam. I can also analyze the notebook quizzes to see if I need to reteach or review a key concept.


Take a little extra time to create customized reading guides. The same principles apply to custom video-viewing guides. The time spent in planning will be well worth it when student learning improves! Here are a view samples of my reading guides to get you started:

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Cynthia W. Resor is a social studies education professor and former middle and high school social studies teacher. Her dream job? Time-travel tour guide. But until she discovers the secret of time travel, she writes about the past in her blog, Primary Source Bazaar. Her three books on teaching social history themes feature essential questions and primary sources: Discovering Quacks, Utopias, and Cemeteries: Modern Lessons from Historical Themes Investigating Family, Food, and Housing Themes in Social Studies and Exploring Vacation and Etiquette Themes in Social Studies.