Who recalls the dates of the Byzantine Empire? Or that the Ohlone Indians spoke one of the Utian languages? Details from social studies are easy to forget once we graduate to the real world. Still, such primers in history, geography, politics, and anthropology are crucial to our children’s education.

How do you know if your child’s social studies curriculum stacks up? Check out our grade-by-grade milestones to understand your state and national standards.

In the classroom

Since social studies in elementary school are closely aligned with civics, third-grade teachers strive to turn their students into outstanding citizens by introducing a wide range of topics. “Within a school program, social studies includes anthropology, archeology, economics, geography, history, and sociology,” says Jane Anne Robertson, Arizona’s 2004 Teacher of the Year.

Separate curriculum

By the time children arrive in third grade, their academic focus will be changing. Instead of learning to read, students should be “reading to learn.” Schools often provide third-graders with separate social studies textbooks as social studies becomes a subject in its own right and no longer integrated into other subject areas.

But you can still expect social studies to be integrated into the school day. Third-graders might, for example, interview veterans before Veterans Day, then write about the experience. Their interviews would reflect the history, geography, government, and economics of the time the veterans served in the armed forces.

Third-graders might also be asked to:

  • Compare cultures and physical features of the United States with other nations.
  • Study the three branches of the U.S. government.
  • Use primary-source materials like diaries or photographs to trace the history of families.
  • Describe the backgrounds of Americans and the ways they have contributed as citizens.
  • Learn how people use resources to modify their physical environment.
  • Discuss the concept of scarcity and how it affects students’ daily lives.
  • Learn about the characteristics of production and exchange in an economy.

What you can expect your third-grader to do or learn:

  • Identify places on a map using absolute and relative locations, directions, borders, longitude and latitude lines, the equator, and the North and South Poles.
  • Know basic physical components of the earth including land forms, water, climate, and weather.
  • Differentiate basic ecosystems (rainforests, deserts, grasslands, etc.).
  • Recognize geographic features (islands, peninsulas, continents, forests, etc.).
  • Recognize global environmental issues like climate change and pollution.
  • Understand how other cultures meet basic needs and how cultures change.
  • Understand the role of rules and laws in our daily lives.

What to look for when visiting your child’s classroom:

  • Samples of student work about the leaders and patriots of colonial America and the American Revolution
  • Stories or charts on the significance of national holidays
  • Copies of the Declaration of Independence and the national and state flag
  • Examples of toys, clothing, or other artifacts from other places
  • Maps that show topographical features
  • Evidence that students are participating in activities that reinforce their study of democracy, like a classroom constitution or the results of a class election
  • Diagrams, charts, or documents that show the functions of the branches of government


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