Buried by Content: Strategies to Support Student Success in Science and Social Studies Courses

All teachers face the challenge of completing their curriculum within a limited time frame, but in content-heavy secondary classrooms, this task can be particularly daunting.  Working with students with disabilities requires specific strategies for covering a large amount of information and numerous skills.  In many Math and English classes, special education teachers co-teach with general educators.  This approach can be very effective; however, in science and social studies classrooms, school resources often limit the availability of special education teachers.

In both co-taught and solo-taught classrooms, there are several opportunities to ease the burden of heavy content when working withbooks students with disabilities.  These include unpacking standards to identify themes, explicitly teaching specific skills at the beginning of a course, and utilizing the station teaching and parallel teaching co-teaching approaches.

For teachers at all experience levels, it is worthwhile to take time to unpack the state assessment standards during unit and overall course planning.  In Virginia, the specific Standards of Learning (SOL) and Curriculum Framework (Science; Social Studies) for a course are the two most important resources to help teachers identify the skills and information that all students will need to know.  There are several resources available to assist teachers in the process of successfully unpacking their SOL standards (see below).  Doing so with a special education teacher can provide general educators insight into areas where additional support for students with disabilities will be needed.

For Social Studies teachers, unpacking the standards can aid in identifying thematic connections between eras and events, and help prioritize certain standards/objectives over others.  For example, in US/VA history and world history courses, a teacher might identify the following themes: the role of technology, the changing role of government in people’s lives, the impact of geography, urbanization or urban vs. rural issues, etc. Similarly, the Virginia science curriculum provides a set of universal goals for all students, including use of experimental design in scientific inquiry, investigating phenomena using technology, applying scientific concepts to everyday experiences, and many others.

Students of all types benefit from consistently revisiting and reinforcing key concepts and themes, so it is helpful to present new content from the perspective of the central concepts and themes that will be addressed throughout the course.  If teachers explicitly teach these components at the beginning of the year or course, they can then be used as a framework for presenting all new information. This helps students organize and incorporate new information into their existing knowledge.  In addition, it enables teachers to provide new content more quickly and easily because they will not have to explicitly teach the central concepts or thematic connections with each new piece of course content.

It also saves time in the long run when teachers take time at the beginning of the course to develop student skills that will be used repeatedly.   For example, teaching students to use graphic organizers and annotate (Rathke, 2013) primary (Wiebe, 2016) and secondary sources will help them throughout the course.  For Social Studies classes, students will benefit from knowledge of specific geography/map skills.  In Science classes, students will benefit from skills in the process of science.   The Enhanced Scope and Sequence Lessons in Social Studies and Science are great resources for incorporating skill development into lessons. If these skills and strategies are utilized throughout the course, students will already know what to do, so instruction at the beginning of activities will take less time.

In classrooms where co-teaching is used to meet the needs of students with disabilities, two co-teaching approaches, Station Teaching and Parallel Teaching, are effective means of working through the content more quickly.  In both, each co-teacher works directly with a smaller group of students rather than the whole class.  Working with smaller groups can ease classroom management issues and allow more students to actively participate.  Station Teaching can be particularly helpful because students engage with multiple topics during a 1- to 2-day lesson.  The T/TAC William and Mary website includes several resources that can provide more information on these co-teaching approaches and support to co-teaching pairs.

Students and teachers in secondary science and social studies classrooms often struggle with the vast amounts of information and number of skills to be mastered.  Unpacking standards to identify themes, teaching specific skills early, and utilizing the station teaching and parallel teaching co-teaching approaches can be effective means of addressing this otherwise daunting challenge.

Additional Resources

Available for loan from our T/TAC W&M Library:

Friend, M. (2014). Co-teach: Building and sustaining effective classroom partnerships in inclusive schools. Greensboro, NC: Marilyn Friend, Inc.

Available on the T/TAC W&M Website:

Available from T/TAC Online:
Real Co-Teachers of Virginia.  This series of webshops showcases the products created by real co-teachers of Virginia, select teams of middle and high school co-teachers participating in the Virginia Department of Education’s Excellence in Co-Teaching Initiative. These co-teachers established demonstration sites and opened their doors to visitors wishing to observe quality co-teaching; they also developed co-taught lesson plans and videos to share through these webshops. In their videos, teachers model not only co-instructing in the classroom but also co-assessing and co-planning.


Rathke, K. (2013). Utah education network. Text annotation: Informational reading strategy.  Retrieved from http://www.uen.org/Lessonplan/preview.cgi?LPid=33159

Wiebe, G. (2016). Social studies central. Primary Sources.  Retrieved from http://www.socialstudiescentral.com/instructional-resources/primary-sources/