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Content Area Literacy

What the Research Says About Literature-Based Teaching and Science

Inquiry-based, discovery-focused science instruction is widely viewed as best practice today. Students learn science best when it is integrated with other areas of the curriculum such as reading, language arts, and mathematics. This includes reading textbooks, newspapers, magazines, online information, and children’s and young adult literature, both fiction and nonfiction.

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Inquiry-based, discovery-focused science instruction is widely viewed as best practice today (National Science Teachers Association [NSTA], 2002). What is inquiry in science instruction? Here is how the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) defines inquiry:

Scientific inquiry refers to the diverse ways in which scientists study the natural world and propose explanations based on the evidence derived from their work. Inquiry also refers to the activities of students in which they develop knowledge and understandingof scientific ideas, as well as an understanding of how scientists study the natural world. (p. 23)

Here are examples of activities that students or scientists would do if they were engaged in inquiry:

  1. Make observations
  2. Ask questions
  3. Read books and look for other sources of information to find out what is already known
  4. Plan an investigation
  5. Use tools to gather, organize, analyze, and interpret data and information
  6. Make predictions and suggest answers and explanations
  7. Communicate findings and results to others

While there tends to be less emphasis today on teaching science in elementary and middle schools than on literacy and mathematics, teachers are not opposed to teaching science (Cobern & Loving, 2002). They may feel, however, that there are limited resources and time to teach science or have personal and system perceptions of a lack of importance for science teaching in the classroom. They have also expressed a lack of confidence in their ability to teach science (Lee & Houseal, 2003).

Many science educators believe constructivist principles, such as eliciting children’s ideas and encouraging discussion and exploration, are a sound basis for effective science teaching (Akerson, Flick, & Lederman, 2000; Flick, 1995; Kelly, Brown, & Crawford,2000; Nuthall, 2001). Research (Vosniadou, Ioannides, Dimitrakopoulou, & Papademetriou, 2001) has shown that this kind of scaffolding during inquiry instruction may include the following experiences for students: expressing and supporting their ideas, making and testing hypotheses and predictions, investigating in small groups, comparing ideas, giving scientific explanations and suggesting models, and presenting and debating ideas and conclusions in the whole class.

While the NSTA (2002) recommends a focus on inquiry-based, discovery-focused instructional approaches to science, this is not the only recommended approach. Teachers can use a range of materials and strategies to teach the skills, knowledge, and abilities addressed in the science standards. Furthermore, using hands-on learning in science is not a guarantee of inquiry and discovery outcomes, nor is reading and using literature such as nonfiction and narrative books with science information incompatible with inquiry and discovery learning.

Ideally, a teacher would use both approaches, combining observations of the real world, record-keeping, experiments, and other hands-on science activities with literature, to introduce a science topic and for continued research on the topic in the classroom. Both are necessary to build the foundation of a good science program. In a study of students participating in an experimental group using both science observations and engaging books, Anderson (1998) found that the students in this group acquired more conceptual knowledge than other groups not using the combined approach. The NSTA (2002) also suggested that students learn science best when it is integrated with other areas of the curriculum such as reading, language arts, and mathematics. This would include reading textbooks, newspapers, magazines, online information, and children’s and young adult literature, both fiction and nonfiction (Newton, Newton, Blake, & Brown, 2002; Vaughn, Sumrall, & Rose, 1998).

Teachers can build a class collection of books to motivate students to engage in thinking and researching topics in inquiry-based, discovery-focused science (Morrison & Young, 2008). Excellent science trade books are widely available for students K through 8. These are not textbooks, but individual or series books about scientific adventures, biographies of the lives of scientists, and careers in science; they blend factual information about the solar system, living organisms, and the earth with scientific inquiry for students across a range of ages, reading abilities, and interests.

Trade books can be used in science education in several ways: to read aloud to a class to introduce a science topic and related facts; to answer student questions and generate further student questions about a topic through discussion of the book; and to further explore a topic combined with hand-on experiences in science. One of the recommendations of The American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Project 2061 (1989) was to integrate literature into the science curriculum. While students can become engaged with scientific phenomenon through observation, recording data, and designing and carrying out experiments, literature can build their understanding of scientific concepts (Bruning & Schweiger, 1997).

Nonfiction trade books can help children acquire science-related information through a presentation of facts, using a well-organized format and graphics such as photographs, charts, maps, tables, and so on. For younger students, scientific concepts and information are often presented following a story line, blending fact and fiction and using narrative to pull the facts through a story. Notable examples of this type of book include many by Eric Carle for young children, such as The Very Hungry Caterpillar, and the Magic School Bus series, by Joanna Cole, for older students.

Using a collection of trade books on a science-related topic allows a teacher to integrate a theme-based and a project approach to teaching science. The teacher can introduce a topic of choice that addresses the standards and is appropriate for the grade level they are teaching and then build a class collection of books around the topic. Themes such as Change or the Environment cut across curricular areas, including science. Topics may also emerge during the school year that will be of interest to students. For example,  during hurricane season in Louisiana with a hurricane forming in the Gulf of Mexico, teachers can plan activities using literature as the source of reading and research on extreme weather.

Guidelines for selecting books for teaching science

The NSTA publishes a list of Outstanding Science Trade Books each year; the books are chosen by a team of science educators who base their decisions on both the content and presentation of each book. Recently, they have grouped their selections according to the eight categories of the science standards. Their selection is based on the following criteria:

  • The book has substantial science content.
  • Information is clear, accurate, and up-to-date.
  • Theories and facts are clearly distinguished.
  • Facts are not oversimplified to the point that the information is misleading.
  • Generalizations are supported by facts, and significant facts are not omitted.
  • Books are free of gender, ethnic, and socioeconomic bias.

Important considerations in choosing books for science instruction are the nature and depth of the science content and the quality of representations of science concepts, although research has indicated that such factors do not always play an important role in newly qualified teachers’ selections of science trade books (Peacock & Gates, 2000). Teachers tend to choose trade books to supplement other activities, for alternative and additional instructional ideas, and if they believe the science topics of the books are of interest to their students and will help students achieve goals in science that address expectations of the curriculum and standards (Butts, Koballa, Anderson, & Butts, 1993). While teachers look for books related to the science content they are teaching, they report that, when given a choice, they also tend to choose fiction over nonfiction because they want students to be engaged by a book and enjoy it (Donovan & Smolkin, 2001).

It’s possible, however, that students may acquire misinformation as well as information, especially with regard to books of fiction (Mayer, 1995). If teachers choose fictional stories related to science content, they should carefully evaluate these books for accuracy and presentation of the content. Introducing a science topic with a book of fiction that has accurate information presented in a narrative form can be highly motivational and engaging to children, and it can then be followed up with nonfiction books that focus on the scientific information.

The Magic School Bus series, published by Scholastic, is an example of an artful combination of narrative, characterization, humor, graphic presentation of information, and science content. Written by Joanna Cole and illustrated by Bruce Degen, each bookfollows the adventures of Ms. Frizzle as she takes her class on scientific adventures in a magic school bus. Magic indeed, the bus can take students on a journey through a city waterworks, to the center of the earth or the ocean floor, into outer space, inside thehuman body, and back to the time of the dinosaurs. The books also model student questions in speech bubbles; how to present science information in charts, graphs, and models; and examples of student report writing. A teacher can introduce a science topic with one of the books in the series and then introduce a variety of books of nonfiction on the topic to support student learning.

National standards for science

The eight categories of the national science content standards are as follows (NSTA, 1996):

  1. Unifying concepts and processes in science (measurement, measurement tools)
  2. Science as inquiry (asking questions, planning and conducting investigations, using appropriate tools and techniques to gather data)
  3. Physical science (properties of objects and materials; position and motion of objects; light, heat, electricity, energy, and magnetism)
  4. Life science (organisms, life cycles of organisms, organisms and environments, structure and function in living systems, reproduction and heredity, regulations and behavior, populations and ecosystems; diversity and adaptations of organisms)
  5. Earth and space science (properties of Earth materials, objects in the sky, changes in Earth and sky, structure of the Earth system, Earth’s history, Earth in the solar system)
  6. Science and technology (distinguish between natural objects and objects made by humans, abilities of technological design, understanding about science and technology)
  7. Science in personal and social perspectives (personal health, characteristics and changes in populations, types of resources, changes in environments, science and technology in local challenges)
  8. History and nature of science (science as human endeavor, nature and history of science)

Cox, C. (2012). Literature Based Teaching in the Content Areas. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.

For any reprint requests, please contact the author or publisher listed.