Introducing Science Concepts to Primary Students Through Read Alouds: Interactions and Multiple Texts Make the Difference
This study of first and second graders looked at teacher-led read alouds as a way to introduce science concepts. Results suggest that multiple exposures to a related concept across different stories gave students more time to build a mental representation of important ideas. This evidence suggests that moving beyond a single text as a source for building students' understanding is an important instructional approach.
Teaching science concepts to young children can be an overwhelming task. The good news is that it doesn't have to be. Thanks to an abundance of wonderfully informative and beautifully illustrated science trade books, primary grade teachers have the opportunity to introduce children to scientific ideas through teacher-led read alouds.
Parents and caregivers have been reading aloud to children for generations, and teachers have traditionally included read-aloud sessions as a consistent feature of their classroom routines. Research has supported these practices, demonstrating that read-aloud sessions have positive effects on reading achievement (International Reading Association & National Association for the Education of Young Children, 1998; Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998). Recently, there has been increased interest in enhancing the instructional potential of the read-aloud context (e.g., Fisher, Flood, Lapp, & Frey, 2004; Lane & Wright, 2007). This interest has focused on student participation, talk, and texts.
Talk surrounding read alouds is an active area of interest and research (Maloch, 2008; Smolkin & Donovan, 2001; Tower, 2002). Kletzien and Dreher (2004) suggested engaging students in discussion during read alouds by allowing them to make interpretations, offer suggestions, and ask questions to support their active involvement in the meaning-making process. Recent studies have looked closely at the dialogue occurring during read-aloud sessions, taking note of the roles of teachers and students in the discussion, how teachers pose questions, the types of questions asked, and student-to-student dynamics (Palincsar, Brown, & Campione, 1993; Pappas, Varelas, Barry, & Rife, 2002; Smolkin & Donovan, 2001, 2003).
Beck and McKeown (2001) carefully considered the role of talking about narrative texts and developed Text Talk, a discussion forum that makes use of open-ended questions during read alouds with young students. Additionally, Beck and her colleagues have promoted the importance of discussion as a means of developing ideas during the read-aloud rather than after (e.g., Sandora, Beck, & McKeown, 1999). They argued that engaging students in discussion after smaller segments of text rather than after reading the entire text provides opportunities for students to carefully consider ideas, clarify misconceptions, and grasp subtleties implied in the text.
Historically, narrative text has been dominant in primary classrooms. Duke's (2000) landmark study revealed alarming evidence of the lack of informational text available to young students. Informational text was extremely limited in the classrooms she observed. Opportunities to interact with the inadequate amount of expository text were also scarce. The most common occurrence involved teacher-led read alouds.
Recently, there has been heightened interest in using informational text with young children (Kletzien & Dreher, 2004; Pappas, 1993; Smolkin & Donovan, 2001). Studies have revealed the educational potential of read alouds as a vehicle for exposing children to informational text (Duke & Kays, 1998; Smolkin & Donovan, 2001). Teacher-led read alouds can provide the necessary support as children encounter potentially difficult content, text features, and challenging vocabulary often found in informational trade books. Webster (2009) found that reading informational text aloud to first graders had positive effects on their understanding of scientific ideas. Before-, during-, and after-reading activities promoted active engagement in the read-aloud sessions, resulting in students' deeper understanding of concepts such as hurricanes.
Researchers have begun to acknowledge the power and usefulness of integrating science and literacy instruction (Guthrie & Ozgungor, 2002; Palincsar & Magnusson, 2001). Barber, Nagy-Catz, and Arya (2006) found that second and third graders engaged in an integrated science/literacy context outperformed those students involved in a science-or literacy-only context on posttest measures. Barber et al. used a combined science/literacy approach for assessing young children's science content knowledge through a pretest, read-aloud, and posttest. Their findings supported a combined science/literacy approach as a means of improving students' conceptual understanding in science (specifically related to shoreline ecosystems) as well as developing students' literacy skills.
The National Science Education Standards (National Research Council, 1996) emphasized the importance of introducing science concepts early on and providing opportunities for students to build on these ideas in deeper ways across the grades. The goal of the National Science Education Standards was that by providing a set of content standards, teachers would be better able to support students in achieving scientific literacy.
Historically, there have been many definitions about what it means to be scientifically literate. DeBoer (2000) defined scientific literacy in broad terms and argued that an open-ended approach, free of benchmarks and high-stakes testing, allows teachers and students more freedom to choose from a wide variety of science content and methodologies. However, other researchers, both internationally (Appleton, 2003; Harlen, 1997) and in the United States (Metz, 2008), found that many teachers do not hold that view and do rely on the standards to identify specific topics for instruction.
An investigation of using read alouds to introduce science concepts
The study described here attempted to use readalouds to introduce children to national science education standards related to science as inquiry and as a human endeavor. Three texts were selected for the read alouds, which focused on a scientist who engaged in scientific inquiry through observation and investigation. The study investigated potential effects on student understanding of carefully planned questions posed after small segments of text had been read during the read-aloud, and questions asked only after the entire text had been read. The specific research questions were (a) Were there differences in comprehension of text ideas following each read-aloud session between students in the during-and after-reading groups? (b) Were there differences in comprehension of text ideas across all three texts between students in the during-and after-reading groups? and (c) How did student talk differ in the during-reading and after-reading discussions?
The participants were first-and second-grade students from two intact multiage classrooms in a university lab school in the northeastern region of the United States. One first/second-grade class was randomly assigned to be the during-reading group, and the other first/second-grade class was selected to be the after-reading group. The during-reading group included nine students, four first graders and five second graders, and the after-reading group included seven students, three first graders and four second graders. Both groups included more girls than boys.
Only those students with parental permission participated in the study. Furthermore, students who were absent during any part of the data-collection sessions or excused for small-group reading instruction were not included as participants. The initial number of possible participants was 17 in each group. The number was diminished because some students did not have parent permission on time and others left during the read-aloud sessions for other reading instruction.
The content focus of the read-aloud sessions was on the work of scientists, specifically, how scientists conduct investigations in a variety of contexts. Texts were selected that depicted scientists at work. Other text-selection criteria included coherence of the text, clarity of ideas, and whether the concepts presented were appropriate for first and second graders, given their maturity and background knowledge. To create texts of comparable length for 20-minute read-aloud sessions, the texts were edited. The editing was such that it did not disrupt the narrative presentations or eliminate any important ideas related to scientific inquiry.
Three texts were selected: Snowflake Bentley (Martin, 1998), Rare Treasure: Mary Anning and Her Remarkable Discoveries (Brown, 1999), and The Boy Who Drew Birds: A Story of John James Audubon (Davies, 2004). Each text provides biographical information about a real person and reveals the thinking and work of a scientist engaged in an authentic investigation. Specifically, Snowflake Bentley tells the story of Wilson Bentley, referred to as Willie in the text, whose interest in snowflakes led him to take thousands of photographs using special techniques that he developed over time. Rare Treasure describes young Mary's discovery of a remarkable skeleton and other fossils. Because of her work, scientists were better able to understand extinct creatures from long ago. Brown's text provides a simple biography of Mary, with important events described in chronological order.
The Boy Who Drew Birds describes the findings of John James Audubon in his pursuit to understand the disappearance of birds in winter and their return in spring. In the book, John James reads about birds and conducts experiments, which he carefully documents to support his theory that the birds that leave their nests in the winter return in the spring. Whereas the book about Anning spanned her entire life, the sections of the trade book selected for this read-aloud provide narrative biographical information about Audubon's childhood.
The order for reading the texts was decided by the authors to support students' developing understanding of scientists involved in a process of inquiry. Snowflake Bentley was read first because of its straightforward presentation of inquiry. The book includes explicit descriptions about Willie's desire to study snowflakes and the experiments he conducted to develop the technology to learn more about them. Rare Treasure was read next. The investigations of Anning in Rare Treasure were neither experimental nor trial and error. Rather, she engages in historical inquiry, a specific kind of scientific inquiry. The placement of Rare Treasure after Snowflake Bentley was deliberate. Students were encouraged to compare Mary's activities to those of Willie, but they were also introduced to the ideas that inquiry could involve investigating the past.
The Boy Who Drew Birds includes a descriptive portrayal of Audubon as a scientist and was read last. The questions he tried to answer about where birds go in the winter and whether they return to the same nest in the spring are described, as well as the steps in his investigation. Like Bentley and Anning, Audubon investigates the natural world through observation and documentation. His efforts connect well to the two previous texts, reinforcing the careful work of a scientist.
All three books reveal the breadth and depth of scientific inquiry. Exposing students to all three texts provided multiple opportunities for them to develop a robust representation of scientific effort.
During-Reading Discussion Scripts
To prepare for the during-reading discussion of the three texts, procedures based on Questioning the Author (Beck, McKeown, Hamilton, & Kucan, 1997) and Text Talk (Beck & McKeown, 2001) were employed. Both of these during-reading approaches engage students in thinking about important text ideas during reading. Both approaches involve partitioning texts into segments or chunks of text, with enough information for students to think and talk about but not so much information that students would be overwhelmed. Questions were planned and posed after each segment.
In this study, questions were designed for particular purposes. First, questions were designed to draw attention to a scientist at work. For instance, during the reading of Snowflake Bentley, one question encouraging students to recognize that Willie studied, kept record, and conducted experiments was, "Remember, we're thinking about scientists and what they do. What does Willie do that shows he is acting like a scientist?" Questions about scientists and the specific contexts of their work were designed to encourage students to develop their ideas about what scientists do and how scientists approach their questions and interests. Our questions offered consistent cues to the main theme of the texts, a practice described by Goldenberg and Patthey-Chavez (1991) as supportive and beneficial.
Another question type was designed to address content-specific information in each text. For example, while reading Rare Treasure, one question was "So, what have we learned about fossils?" followed by "What are they? Where are they found? How are they found?"
A third type of question was developed to assist students in making connections to previously read texts. For example, while reading the third text about Audubon, a question was "Does John James's idea of turning to books remind you of anyone else that we have read about?" Questions that encouraged students to make intertextual connections (Pappas et al., 2002) promoted students' developing representation of scientists at work by prompting them to explicitly compare, contrast, and connect information across the three texts.
Finally, another type of question was developed to support students' understanding of important science-related vocabulary, words that would help them build a representation of what a scientist does, such as "What does it mean to study something?" and "What does it mean that he kept a record?" Questions that focused on vocabulary drew students' attention to words, such as study, experiment, and discover. The words, discussed parenthetically during the readalouds, are found in all three texts and relate directly to scientists at work.
The questions described above were used to develop a script. The discussion leader used the script with the during-reading group of students to stop after-reading segments of text and to pose a question for the purposes described above.
After-Reading Discussion Scripts
The questions in the script used with students in the after-reading group were the same as those used with the during-reading group. However, the questions were posed only after the entire text was read. Like the questions used with the during-reading group, these questions focused on scientists at work, content-specific information, intertextual connections, and vocabulary.
For example, after reading The Boy Who Drew Birds, questions related to a scientist at work included "How did John James try to find answers to the questions he had?" and "How did he try to learn about bird migration?" A sample question designed to address content-specific information for the same book was "After reading this book, what have you learned about bird migration?" Example questions designed to encourage students to make intertextual connections were "Did John James do anything that reminded you of Willie or Mary?" "How does John James fit into your idea of a scientist?" and "Would you call him a scientist? What makes you say that?"
Measures were developed to assess student understanding of content — facts about snowflakes, fossils, and bird migration — and the concept of the work a scientist does. Identical measures and procedures were used with students in both the during-and after-reading groups. For all measures, individual students were assessed orally in a separate room with a member of the research team, and responses were audiotaped.
Each after-story test included two content-specific questions: one about the person's interest and one about the person. For instance, after reading The Boy Who Drew Birds, students were asked "Why do you think John James chose to study birds?" and "What did you learn about him?" The after-story test also included two questions asking students to consider how the person in each story related to what they were learning about scientists, for example, "Do you think John James is a scientist? What things from the story would support your answer?" Similar questions were asked after each story (see Table 1).
The pre-and posttests consisted of two parts. The first involved questions about the scientist in each story and the focus of their inquiry. Specifically, those questions included "What do you know about Willie Bentley?" and "What do you know about snowflakes?" Students earned one point for each response that related to ideas learned from the text.
The second part of the pre-and posttests included four prompts to capture students' understanding of a scientist at work, such as "Tell me what you know about scientists." "How would you describe a scientist?" "What do they do?" and "What tools do they use?" Points were given to responses demonstrating an understanding that scientists wonder about answers to unsolved problems, ask questions, observe, study things, conduct experiments, consult books, and discover. Although students mentioned several tools that are in fact used by scientists, such as microscopes, magnifying glasses, and computers, only the following responses regarding tools found in the texts read were awarded points: books, notebooks, pens or pencils, cameras, and tools for digging (see Table 2).
Student responses on the after-story tests and pre-and posttests were compared with agreed-upon ideal responses. Students earned one point for each response given that matched an ideal response.
Transcripts from all during-and after-reading discussions were audiotaped and transcribed. The transcripts of these discussions were analyzed to identify specific instances of students' cued interactions with text ideas, that is, how students were guided to focus on important text information.
The study was conducted over five days. On the first and fifth days, students met individually with Natalie (first author) or a graduate student researcher to complete the pre-and posttests. On the second, third, and fourth days of the study, Natalie read one of the three texts aloud, using the appropriate discussion method with the during-and after-reading groups. At the conclusion of the read-aloud, students met individually with a member of the research team to respond to the after-reading questions.
Did students who engaged in a teacher-led discussion during read-aloud sessions build a more robust representation of text ideas than students who engaged in discussion after read alouds? The data to answer this question came from an analysis of students' responses to questions on the after-story tests. Generally, scores on these tests were low for both groups, and there was no difference in students' overall scores (see Table 3). Questions such as "Why do you think Willie was so interested in snowflakes?" elicited responses such as "He liked snow" and "He thought they were neat."
However, analysis of student responses to the after-story question, "If someone asked you if [Willie, Mary, John James] was a scientist, what would you say?" and the follow-up question, "What evidence from the story supports your answer?" revealed noteworthy differences between students in the during- and after-reading groups. Although students in both groups indicated that they would consider each person portrayed in the texts to be a scientist, more students in the during-reading group were able to provide evidence to support their answer than students in the after-reading group (see Table 4).
One example is from the after-story test for the book about Audubon. Not only did more of the students in the during-reading group provide evidence than the after-reading group but also the responses were richer. That is, responses included more relevant information, revealing a deeper understanding of text ideas. For instance, one student in the during-reading group said, "He did experiments with birds… he tied a string to a bird and then to see if it came back, which is my idea of an experiment what scientists does to find out new things." Another said, "He looks really closely at things, and he drew them." Typical responses from the after-reading group were brief, such as "He studied" "He made pictures of birds" and "He looked in books."
Whereas the after-story tests provided information about the students' understanding of the three individual texts, the pre-and posttests focused students' attention on understanding across the three texts, asking them to generalize about scientific inquiry. What was the cumulative effect of a thoughtful arrangement of books used during read-aloud sessions on students' understanding of what scientists do? Data from the pre-and posttests provided information to answer this question.
The pre-and posttests included questions about each of the three persons featured in the texts and what each person studied, as well as a set of questions regarding a scientist at work. The first pre-and posttest question was, "What do you know about [Willie/Mary/John James]? What can you tell me about [him, her]?" Responses such as, "He studied snowflakes" or "He took pictures of snowflakes" were awarded one point. Vague or general responses, such as, "He liked snowflakes," were not awarded any points. Rich responses were awarded multiple points. For example, this student's response from the during-reading group was awarded three points: "He made the world realize snowflakes aren't like dirt; they had all different shapes and sizes. Not one snowflake is alike [1 point], and he was very interested in snow, and he liked studying it [1 point] and taking pictures of it [1 point]."
The second pre-and posttest question asked students what they knew about the specific subject studied by each scientist: snowflakes, fossils, and bird migration. Students earned points for responses that represented rich details shared in the text. For instance, this student in the during-reading group earned two points for his response about snowflakes: "They are bits of snow that have frozen and crystallized [1 point], and the beginning of snowflakes is very little and then branches stick out [1 point]." In contrast, a student in the after-reading group responded that snowflakes "look like a little dot and have six sides."
The final set of pre-and posttest questions consisted of four probes regarding a scientist at work. Students were asked what they knew about scientists, to describe a scientist, discuss what scientists do, and the tools they use. Points were given to responses demonstrating an understanding that scientists wonder about answers to unsolved problems, ask questions, observe, study things, conduct experiments, consult books, and discover. For instance, a student in the during-group responded that scientists "use special tools to do research and to find things and sometimes to see what some things are, because they are really small." A student in the after-reading group responded, "They study something — like [student pauses] — and never give up. Some scientists do that. Some do give up, and some don't. They have to always stick with a problem or stick with the thing they are doing, and they can't just start something else if they aren't done with the first."
Comparing scores on the pre-and posttests revealed that students in the during-reading group showed greater gains than the students in the after-reading group. Significant differences were found for gain scores as a result of an independent samples t-test assuming equal variances. Specifically, the gain scores of the during-reading group were greater compared with those of the after-reading group (p = .038; see Table 5).
Analysis of the discussion transcripts revealed the frequency of students' cued interactions with text ideas. Students in both groups were cued for two purposes. Specifically, students were encouraged to consider text ideas related to scientific inquiry: the process of a scientist at work, what scientists do, and how the three scientists portrayed in these texts were similar. Students were also encouraged to talk about the focus of inquiry for these three scientists: snowflakes, fossils, and bird migration.
The transcript excerpts provided evidence of the opportunities for student talk focused on important text ideas: the process and content of scientific inquiry. All student responses were coded as either ideas related to scientific inquiry or ideas related to the focus of scientific inquiry. Those responses considered scientific inquiry included ideas such as: studied, read books, experiments, never gave up, kept records, and any tools a scientist might use (e.g., camera, books). Responses coded as related to the focus of scientific inquiry included comments specific to snowflakes, fossils, or bird migration. Both groups had more cued interactions related to the process of scientific inquiry than the focus of that inquiry — snowflakes, fossils, and bird migration.
Students in the during-reading group talked about important text ideas with greater frequency than students in the after-reading group. These verbal interactions provided opportunities for reiterating information described in the text as well as making inferences about that information. For example, following a segment of text about Willie's idea to purchase a camera, the discussion leader asked, "What is he thinking? What does he want to do?" One student replied, "He could take pictures of snowflakes so he could have memories." The discussion leader further prompted, "How will the camera help Willie with his plan?" Another student responded, "It will magnify the snowflakes." (See Table 6.)
The transcripts showed that most of the talk that transpired during the 20-minute discussion sessions was very focused on the content of the texts. The number of cued interactions was greater with the during-reading group across all three texts. In other words, these students had more opportunity to talk about text ideas. A closer look at the type of interactions showed that those related to scientific inquiry were more common than those related to the focus of each scientist's inquiry: snowflakes, fossils, or bird migration. Thus, the discussion focused more on building students' general idea of a scientist at work across stories rather than the specific content of inquiry for individual scientists.
What's worth noting is that the students in the during-reading group, who had more opportunities to talk about important ideas, were able to remember those ideas and use them in building their understanding of a scientist across three texts. These students were better able to make intertextual connections, benefiting not only from more cued interactions but also by multiple exposures to important ideas.
Discussion and implications
There is little research available to document the interactions of young students with expository texts. The present study was an attempt to address that gap. The children in this study were first and second graders who listened as three informational trade books were read aloud to them and who participated in talking about those texts.
Despite the limited number of students involved in this study, the results suggest that first and second graders can be engaged in thoughtfully considering important text ideas in a read-aloud context and that the careful selection of texts can support their developing understanding of themes that emerge in compelling ways when more than one text is used.
Despite the limited number of students involved in this study, the results suggest that first and second graders can be engaged in thoughtfully considering important text ideas in a read-aloud context and that the careful selection of texts can support their developing understanding of themes that emerge in compelling ways when more than one text is used.
The discussion about these texts prompted students to think about the content of the scientists' investigations: snowflakes, fossils, and bird migration. But the questions also prompted students to consider larger themes across the texts, namely, how scientists go about their work by observing, formulating questions, developing ways to answer those questions, keeping records of their findings, and sharing their discoveries with others. This study provides some evidence to suggest that first and second graders are able to grasp and articulate these larger themes, as demonstrated in their pre-and posttest performances.
Students in both groups scored generally low on the after-story tests. However, students in the during-reading group showed greater gains on the pre- and posttest measures than students in the after-reading group. One way to think about the after-story test scores and the gain scores is to consider that they represent measures of two different kinds of understanding: understanding of an individual text and understanding of multiple texts over time.
The gain scores suggest that multiple exposures to a related concept across stories afforded students more time to build a mental representation of important ideas. This evidence suggests that moving beyond a single text as a source for building students' understanding is an important instructional approach.
Another way to think about the greater gain scores for the during-reading group over the after-reading group is to focus on the opportunities for interacting with text ideas. Students in the during-reading group were cued after small segments of text to consider content and vocabulary in the text. The questions kept them focused on the text ideas. Their attention was directed, more than students in the after-reading group, to think about the process each scientist used in devising and carrying out a plan to answer his or her scientific questions.
Recent research supported the integration of science and literacy instruction with young students (Barber et al., 2006) and suggested using trade books as a part of an inquiry-based science curriculum, in which students are engaged in activities to develop their understanding of science and scientific practices (Ford, 2006). Tradebooks, such as those included in this study, can support students in learning more about how scientists think.
Teachers can create sets of books for readalouds, engaging students in discussion of scientific ideas. For example, in a life science unit on surviving in the animal kingdom, a teacher could read aloud A Mother's Journey (Markle, 2005), Little Lost Bat (Markle, 2006), and Finding Home (Markle, 2008). These tales of a mother penguin, a bat, and a koala and her baby joey introduce students to important ideas, such as life cycles, animal habitats, and ecosystems, that are reinforced across the texts.
The read-aloud context is a powerful one. Young students have the opportunity to engage with ideas in texts above their reading level. They can be exposed to important ideas and themes of consequence. Attending to larger themes and constructs, such as scientific inquiry, can influence student understanding of subsequent texts and their way of thinking about them. As such, the results of this study are encouraging and generative, providing a basis for further investigation.
About the authors
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