Founding Documents: Northwest Ordinance and U.S. Bill of Rights

Foundational Documents: reading activities for grades 4 and 8 and the Northwest Ordinance and the Bill of Rights

With the Ohio General Assembly’s recent passage of Amended Substitute Senate Bill 165, content related to the original texts of the Declaration of Independence, the Northwest Ordinance, the Constitution of the United States and its amendments, (emphasizing the Bill of Rights) and the Ohio Constitution is now included in grades 4-12 social studies. Concomitantly, Appendix B: Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies grades 6-12 include content related to reading and suggests that ” students must be able to read complex informational texts in these fields with independence and confidence because the vast majority of reading in college and workforce training programs will be sophisticated nonfiction”. ELA common core standards documents note that these standards are intended to complement and not replace specific content within the social studies discipline. They also explain that K-5 reading and writing standards are integrated within the ELA standards at those grade levels.

Social studies teachers across Ohio are wondering about the implications for instruction. Are students in grades 4 and 8 capable of understanding what’s written in documents that were written two hundred years ago? Understanding the language found in documents from this time period does represent a significant challenge for students. Are there specific teaching strategies that can help?

Neil Duke and P. David Pearson suggest “good readers try to determine the meaning of unfamiliar words and concepts in the text…” and that they “construct, revise and question the meanings they make as they read”. The two unit plans that appear below address those skills. It’s important to point out that the plans were drafted from the perspective of the social studies discipline with careful consideration of the social studies content.

Common Core ELA standards include a core unit entitled: A Close Reading of the Gettysburg Address for high school students. The writers felt that this particular speech was the perfect text for close reading. Ohio’s legislatively mandated reading of the foundational documents may not be ideal texts for the close reading process, but I chose to modify the process somewhat for use with the Northwest Ordinance in Grade 4 and the Bill of Rights in Grade 8. Notice that in both plans the social studies content is paired with Reading Informational Text standards from Common Core ELA.

Let’s begin with grade 4, considering content statement 5:

The Northwest Ordinance established a process for the creation of new states and specified democratic ideals to be incorporated in the states of the Northwest Territory.

Fourth grade students need to be able to explain the process by which Ohio progressed from territory to statehood and how the Northwest Ordinance influenced the inclusion of democratic ideals in the states formed from the Northwest Territory. While students in grade four would be hard pressed to understand the entire document, excerpts from the original text can help students understand the process of becoming a new state as well as the democratic processes it promoted. The review of the original text of the Northwest Ordinance reveals that Section 14, Articles 1,3,5 and 6 relate to that content.

Below is a unit plan that features a modified close- reading of the Northwest Ordinance. The News Flash assessment aligns with the Expectation for Learning for content statement 5, that requires students to explain how Ohio progressed from territory to statehood and how the Northwest Ordinance influenced the incorporation of democratic ideals in the states that were formed from the Northwest Territory.


For grade 8, let’s consider content statement 21:

The U.S. Constitution protects citizens’ rights by limiting the powers of government.

As students examine the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution (the Bill of Rights) its important that they understand the rights it guarantees citizens as well as the limitations that were placed on the government. Students will undoubtedly encounter unfamiliar words as they read through the amendments, so once again, the unit incorporates students constructing, revising and questioning the meaning of words as they read.

The unit plan below features a middle school modified close reading activity with the Bill of Rights. Notice the scaffolding of skills involved in the process and also the variety of ways that the students interact with the text. Notice also that the assessment, the Rights Poster, aligns with the expectation for learning for the content statement.



Effective Practices for Developing Reading Comprehension, Neil K. Duke and P. David Pearson, Scholastic Red 2002.

Common Core English Language Arts Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies