Last month, I was invited by the Science Teachers Association of Queensland (STAQ) to present a talk about using picture books in science lessons as part of their Growing Science webinars in the lead up to Science Week. What a great opportunity — picture books and science. What’s to not like? Picture books are one of the best ways I know of turning young children onto two of my favourite things — reading and learning.
You can find out more about the webinar series and access recordings and free resources on the STAQ website here.
Below is a brief version of the article I wrote as the basis of my presentation.
You can access the entire article in the zip folder Using Picture Books in Science Lessons, which also includes other handouts I provided to support my talk.
You can listen to the talk via this link or watch it below.
Linking science and literacy
Language is as important to the science curriculum as it is to the English curriculum. Science is another context in which language is used and must be learned.
In this article I’m going to show you some ways of including picture books in your science lessons.
Many of the skills required by science are also literacy skills; skills such as:
- observing details
- sequencing events
- making predictions
- linking cause and effect
- distinguishing fact from opinion
- making inferences, and
- drawing conclusions.
When you integrate learning across curriculum areas and teach skills in meaningful contexts, you are getting better value from your lessons and children are learning more efficiently when they make connections with what they already know.
Picture books don’t replace the requirement to teach content. They are used as a springboard to inspire children’s curiosity and initiate their questions. We all know children are more interested and learn better when they are asking and investigating their own questions. The right picture book can encourage the children to ask the questions you need to cover the curriculum content.
Think science questions aloud as you read picture books
You have probably used the think aloud strategy to model comprehension and reading strategies in English lessons. We can do the same thing to model think aloud science questions and statements, such as: I didn’t know that. Is that true? Could that really happen? Where or how can I find out more?
Example lessons: Spiders
Below are some sample lessons and teaching ideas focusing on spiders. I selected spiders because of their relevance to the biological sciences taught from F – 2 when we look at their features, their needs, their habitats and their life cycles. They are also engaging. Everyone has a spider story or two – the huntsman as big as a dinner plate, the web in the garden you walk into each morning, the spider in the shoe. Children have these stories too.
For this series of lessons, you need the nursery rhyme Little Miss Muffet, Jeannie Baker’s picture book One Hungry Spider and a good supply of information books about spiders which you could borrow from your school or local library.
While we often begin a unit by telling children what they will be learning, in this unit we won’t do that. Instead, we’ll stimulate their interest and invite them to ask questions which will guide us towards the content we wish to cover.
Lesson 1: What do spiders look like?
- Display a picture of Little Miss Muffet, minus the spider. Ask the children to draw a picture of the spider that’s missing.
- Display photographs of spiders, and ask children to observe the features, comparing them with their own drawings.
- Ask the children to draw another a spider — a more accurate scientific drawing this time — and compare it with their first drawing.
Lesson 2: What we know and what we want to know about spiders
Step 1 — Collect prior knowledge and questions
After the first lesson, children are probably bursting with spider stories and information about spiders. We harness their enthusiasm to lead us into the science content.
Make a chart of what children know. You could use a KWL chart, write a list, or create a mind map.
Children might come up with statements such as:
- Spiders have 8 legs.
- Spiders build webs.
- Spiders eat flies.
- Spiders are dangerous.
Some of the children’s statements might lead to questions which can be added to the chart, for example:
- Do all spiders have 8 legs?
- Do all spiders build webs?
- Why do spiders build webs?
- How strong are spiders’ webs?
- What other animals build webs?
Discuss how children could find out the answers to those questions; for example, observe spiders, ask someone who knows, read a book, visit a museum.
Who could you ask — your friend, your neighbour, your parents, your teacher? Any of those people might know, but their knowledge may be incomplete. The best one to ask is an arachnologist — a scientist who studies spiders.
It would be great to invite an arachnologist to the classroom or speak with one in a museum, but in our current series of lessons, we will be using picture books and information books.
Step 2 — Read aloud One Hungry Spider
Show children the cover of One Hungry Spider by Jeannie Baker. Ask if they would expect to find out information in this book and to explain their thinking. (Note: This is a counting book, so you are doing maths as well as science and literacy.)
Read the book aloud, demonstrating how to ask questions by thinking aloud. But remember, you are thinking aloud questions, not answers; for example:
Think Aloud while Reading One Hungry Spider
- I wonder is this a real type of spider.
- I wonder why the spider didn’t want the birds to see her.
- Would keeping still prevent the birds from seeing her?
- I wonder if spiders fix the holes in their webs. Do spiders eat grasshoppers?
- What are spiderlings? How did they get there? Where did they come from? Why will the spider eat them? Are they the same kind of spider? Would spiders eat their own spiderlings?
And so on. There are many different questions that are suitable for asking on each page.
Step 3: Add new questions to the list
Add new questions that arose during reading to your list. Ask the children if they learned anything from reading the book. Was the book useful for finding out information about spiders? Why? Hopefully they will tell you it is a story book and not an information book.
Lesson 3: Narrative picture books and non-fiction information books, and research
Step 1: Differences between narrative picture books and information books
Show children One Hungry Spider again and ask them to explain how they know it is a story book and how story books differ from information books. Children won’t know all the differences, but they may know some. They will need to know the features explained in the next step to enable them to conduct their research.
Step 2: Features of non-fiction information books
Choose a non-fiction book and explain its features, for example:
- don’t have to be read from cover to cover but can be dipped into to find certain pieces of information.
- are organised with a contents page at the front and an index page at the back. The contents page and the index can help you decide if the book will contain the information you need and where to find it.
- often have a glossary which might contain helpful information with explanations of unfamiliar terms.
- often have labelled photographs and illustrations, diagrams, graphs and fun facts.
Step 3: Demonstrate how to find the answer to a question
Choose one of the questions that children have asked — one for which you have an information book that holds the answer.
Demonstrate deciding if and where the answer can be found by reading the contents page and using the index. Ensure children know that they don’t have to read the book from cover to cover to find out the answer.
Demonstrate how to find the information in the book, using text, illustrations, photographs, diagrams and fun facts.
Lesson 4: Children research
Children choose a question from the list that they wish to find out about.
Individually, in pairs or small groups children should research the answers to their questions in the information books. They should record what they find out and report back to the class.
This process can be repeated in additional lessons until all questions (or as many as time allows) have been answered.
Lesson 5: Create a class book of information
Children illustrate the information they have recorded and compile it into a class book for the reading corner. If desired, make copies for children to keep or take home and read to their family.
Lesson 6: How factual are picture books?
After the children have investigated what spiders really look like and how they live and behave, provide them with variety of picture books to explore for spider illustrations. They should sort the books according to those which provide accurate images, and those which provide cartoon/stylised images.
Throughout these activities, children are:
- developing literacy skills
- reading and comprehension
- speaking and listening
- increasing their science understanding
- developing science understanding, inquiry skills and attitudes
- drawing conclusions
- thinking critically
and realising that the purpose of a picture book is to entertain, not necessarily to impart information or facts.
Science as a Human Endeavour
When children are engaged in these types of activities they are thinking like scientists. Another interesting activity to do with the children is to ask them to draw a scientist, and perhaps even to write a description of a scientist, such as: A scientist is someone who …
I’ve already shown you some ways in which picture books can be used for teaching critical thinking and critical literacy from a young age, for example when they investigate images for accuracy.
When children are reading or being read picture books, they are able to use their imagination and suspend disbelief while knowing that much of what they see is fictionalised. We all know a story when we read one.
Other times, details that are embedded in a story appear as if they might be true. It can be difficult to extract the facts from the fiction or the fiction from the facts. In this way misinformation can be accepted as almost common knowledge and misunderstandings spread.
I’m sure you’ve all heard about lions being kings of the jungle. But did you know that lions don’t live in the jungle?
You often hear of tiger and lions together, and penguins and polar bears together in stories. But they wouldn’t meet each other in the wild either.
There are also many picture books that talk about butterflies ‘hatching’ from cocoons. But butterflies emerge from chrysalises and their caterpillars hatch from eggs. Moth caterpillars spin cocoons and moths emerge from them.
Each of these examples reinforces the need for accurate use of vocabulary and language so as not to create confusion and spread misinformation. The ability to distinguish fact from fiction and reliable from unreliable sources is important for us all, whatever our age or level of experience. This is true even of some non-fiction books.
For this reason, I urge you to be very clear in your purpose when using picture books in the science curriculum. Picture books are written to entertain, not to teach facts.
However, as I’ve shown, they can be used to inspire curiosity, instigate inquiry and develop critical thinking and many other literacy and science skills.
Why not encourage your children to be ‘myth busters’ as they uncover inaccuracies in the books that are read throughout the year?
For more on critical thinking and picture books, see Using picture books to teach critical thinking in early years classrooms.
Watch my talk here:
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