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Disciplinary Literacy in a 5th-Grade Social Studies Unit – An Interview with an Expert

night skyline of Turkey with a crescent moon above a dome-shpaed building

If you a teacher like me, you have been around the block with literacy articles, pedagogy, and PD’s. But how many of us have had a glimpse into the international world of disciplinary and digital literacy? I’d love to share the following interview with you; a look into a 5th-grade Turkish classroom and the social studies unit that Sarah Kilinç, an American educator, planned and executed.

The Interview

Q: Give me a little background information about yourself.

night skyline of Turkey with a crescent moon above a dome-shpaed buildingA: My name is Sarah Kilinç and I am an American who moved to Turkey in 2009 and never came back. I went to Duke University and majored in Cultural Anthropology. I got a Fulbright scholarship and spent a year in Istanbul where I studied Turkish and fell in love with the country and the man who sold me my first Turkish cell phone. Thirteen years later, I am married to said cell phone salesman, the mother of 2, an educator in a Turkish/American international school, and I have a masters in Turkish history. I teach 5th grade but have taught K students and college students and almost everything in between.

Q: Can you share with me the social studies unit that you recently facilitated in your 5th-grade classroom?

A: The unit I chose to focus on this semester for Social Studies was about local Turkish resources/exports, and I asked the essential question, “How do goods and resources of Turkey play a role in our local and world economies?” Over the course of the semester, we approached this authentic unit in a multi-faceted way. We took fieldtrips, did online research, listened to guest speakers, worked with a digital map. As a unit assessment, we wrote letters to Turkish citizens persuading them to buy local and gave evidence-based reasons why this was beneficial to their country.  Each student group had to do research to choose a local resource on which they would focus. The assessment was a group project in which students used the information collected in the research stage to create an advertisement for the good which they selected. Collaboration was a key component for me; I wanted to make sure the groups were responsible for distributing an equitable workload to each member and had many opportunities to practice using their voices and embrace their status as stakeholders in this process.

Q: How did this inquiry-based unit and the accompanying projects fit into the four sub-disciplines of social studies?

A: I was able to tie history into this lesson as a place to start the unit. Each student group conducted research on the history of their resource. They were asked to use a digital graphic organizer to organize their findings. Civics was a very important part of this lesson because we discussed how promoting the use of local goods was a way to make choices that supported the greater societal good. They found blogs about buying local and available markets around the city which sold their selected goods. There were easy ways to connect this to economics because it allowed students to think about how Turkey as a county obtains its goods and products and how we can subsequently pay for services that we need. Geography plays a part in this lesson because maps help to provide a visual for the role that Turkey and its products might play on the world stage.

Q: What strategies did you use to ensure the integration of disciplinary and digital literacy into this social studies unit?

A: I made sure to pre-teach some tier 3 vocabulary that was specific to Turkish history, economics, civics and geography to provide my students with a strong vocabulary base. This allowed them to use academic words while collaborating and interacting with professionals in the field. I asked students to keep a digital log of these vocabulary words as a reference. I made sure to give them a variety of primary sources to explore such as websites, interactive lessons, field trips/museums, interviews with experts, articles, and images/videos on their product. Digital maps were utilized in this lesson to help students understand how much of the world’s supply of their goods were harvested or manufactured in Turkey, and it also helped to show where the goods were distributed. Throughout the unit and the projects I assigned, I encouraged my students to pull information from a variety of sources, engage in peer-to-peer collaboration as well as ask questions of experts/professionals in the field. The guest speakers who came to our classrooms gave the students a connection with the real world and allowed them to see themselves in these professional roles. The field trip to the Museum of Turkish Archeology provided a history of the olive oil trade and how it affected the world power dynamics of previous civilizations and helped students to make connections to modern-day exports and commerce. This was all driven by essential questions I provided at the beginning of the project and revisited throughout their research and inquiry-based critical thinking processes.


We can see from this interview with Mrs. Kilinç that she gave her students an engaging inquiry-based project within an authentic unit which contained multimodalities of text and literacy. This allowed her students to read, analyze and comprehend information to draw conclusions based on evidence from different text types (Colwell et al., 2020). Learning from multiple sources, digital, print, and beyond, helped her students to see the same topic through different perspectives and lenses (Ziemke & Muhtaris, 2020). She introduced them to experts in the field so students could engage in the core disciplinary practices as experts might (Colwell et al., 2020). Vocabulary was an important aspect of the pre-teaching that occurred as she prepared her students for academic conversation and peer discussion. Collaboration and communication were an integral part of the process as students answered questions posed throughout the different phases of the projects assigned.

The real-world applications in this unit allowed students to connect their lives as learners and helped them to see the greater purpose in their learning (Ziemke & Muhtaris, 2020). Students were able to connect with authentic audiences, which helps them to make sense of the world (Ziemke & Muhtaris, 2020). These impactful practices and critical thinking around digital resources are building a solid foundation in access and agency that will serve students for the rest of their lives. Having this wonderful international perspective teaches us that effective educational practices and frameworks are universally effective, and I hope we can pick up a few tips and ideas from this comprehensive and thoughtful unit so that we can serve our students in an authentic and agentic way.

Additional Resources

This YouTube video shows you how to add digital graphic organizers to Google Classroom. This was the platform onto which Mrs. Kilinç provided many critical thinking resources, including digital graphic organizers, for her students.

Visit the Web site of the Archeological Museum that Mrs. Kilinç’s students visited. Note that the Web site is in Turkish, but the pictures are all viewable.

View digital lists and definitions of common social studies vocabulary. The words are also available as flashcards.


Colwell, J., Hutchison, A., Woodward, L., & Bean, T. (2020). Digitally supported disciplinary literacy for diverse K-5 classrooms. Teachers College Press.

Ziemke, K., & Muhtaris, K. (2020). Read the world: Rethinking literacy for empathy and action in a Digital age. Heinemann.

About the Author

Johanna Hutchison is a Clinical Liaison at Howard Community College and recently earned the M.Ed. in Teaching Literacy to Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Populations from Loyola University Maryland.