Reading History and Civics in Middle and High School

Freedom Center Voices
June 30, 2023

Reading History and Civics in Middle and High School

A colleague recently dropped by my office to discuss a radio report she heard on her commute. The May 3, 2023 NPR report “History and Civics Scores Drop for U.S. Eighth Graders on National Test” had her wondering how the Freedom Center could support parents of middle and high schoolers who want to improve their students’ reading skills in history and civics.  My answer was – that’s a great idea! Here is information for parents who want to know more.

How do I know if my child is really “reading:”

To truly read a written text, you must be comprehending what is written. Pronouncing the words on the page doesn’t automatically equate to understanding the meaning conveyed by those words. You must discuss the text with your students to gauge if they are comprehending what they read.

Do you read all texts the same way?

No. You change how you read depending upon the text. You engage different reading skills and practices when reading a poem compared to reading a math story problem. You also employ different skills and practices when you read fiction versus non-fiction. Reading a novel and following character and plot development requires a different skillset compared to pulling important information from a newspaper article or chapter in a science textbook.

When students enter middle and high school, they have learned the basic skills and strategies for reading and comprehending texts across different genres. However, they do not yet have the reading skills they need to successfully understand the complex, discipline-specific texts required in middle and high school. Reading instruction cannot end in elementary school. Middle and high school teachers need the time and support to engage students with discipline-specific texts – and I’m not talking about textbooks. Students need to learn to read the type of texts they will encounter throughout their life.

What should students be reading to improve their history and civics literacy?

As the NPR articles states, “Teaching history is built on the foundation of reading comprehension.” We read to engage with the past. Of course, reading non-fiction texts is terrific. However, not everyone enjoys it. Non-fiction in smaller doses, such as content on websites, might have more appeal. Credible institutions, such as the Freedom Center, have texts about various historical events and people. Historical fiction is also a great way to learn about past societies.

Civics teaches us to be citizens in our participatory democracy. Therefore, we need to stay informed about the issues our country is facing. As the NPR report noted, “…we need to make sure our kids are engaged citizens, and that means they need to be informed with knowledge and the skills to do this work. And that takes every class.” Newspaper and magazine articles are essential reading. Books about civic engagement and social justice reveal how our system operates and how citizens make societal, political and economic changes.

Importantly, we need to teach students to identify credible sources. This is an essential civic reading skill. There is a lot of information out there, especially online, and not all of it is based upon facts and evidence.
Here is just one source that can help you judge the credibility of websites:
Here is one about the credibility of sources in general:

How can I get my student to read history and civics texts? Obviously, you can’t force your student to read, but there are things you can do to encourage reading.


1. Read together. Parents typically stop reading to their students around middle school. However, you should continue to read with your students. If you are reading the same texts, you can have conversations about the content, and that improves comprehension for both of you.

2. Talk (and read) about current events. Talk to your kids about the current events you read about. Seek out and read articles on topics that interest your student, and then ask them to read the articles. You can text them the link and talk about it over dinner or in the car. Ask them for their opinions and have them justify those opinions with facts and evidence. Ask them to evaluate the opinions expressed by others based upon provided evidence.

3. Encourage exploration. Smartphones provide us with access to unlimited information, including quality publications. Subscribe to some of them and provide your student with access. If your student shows interest in a particular topic, take a trip to the library (in person or online) and learn more together.

Dr. Amy Bottomley is the Director of Educational Initiatives at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. She has earned a B.S. in Secondary Education: Social Studies, a M.Ed. in Reading Education, and an Ed.D. in Curriculum and Instruction. Amy has taught high school social studies and reading courses in Ohio and Maryland, as well as teacher education courses at the University of Cincinnati. She is dedicated to teaching for social justice and supporting teachers in their pursuit of inclusive classroom practices. Amy can be contacted at (513) 333-7586 or at

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