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Finding New Ways to Use Picture Books in the Classroom

By Judy Boyle

Posted on 2021-06-28

NSTA’s Engage: Spring21 virtual conference happened when I was feeling emotionally and physically drained. This conference was just what I needed to reinvigorate and inspire me. The benefit of a virtual conference is the ability to view the sessions I missed or revisit the ones I had attended, such as the Elementary Extravaganza sessions. This platform also allowed me to group and view sessions according to a theme. For example, “using trade books in the elementary science classroom” was one theme I used to group sessions.

Christine Royce’s session, Using Picture Books to Make ‘Text to Investigation’ Connections in Science, was one I couldn't resist. This session was targeted to beginner and intermediate attendees. As an experienced teacher, I considered the session an opportunity to revisit my pedagogy and assess my teaching, but I soon discovered there was much for me to learn. Royce shared how to extend the standard literacy “text-to” ideas (text to self, text to text, and text to world) to include “text to investigation” to support learning in both science and literacy. She cited research showing that when students do science, it helps improve their literacy skills because they have a purpose for writing, reading, and vocalizing their understandings and ideas. She also discussed the connections among science (and engineering), math, and ELA practices in the context of the elementary classroom.

Royce shared how these strategies and ideas could be implemented through a science lesson about floating and sinking. She first summarized the book What Floats in a Moat by Lynne Berry before moving on to the activity. This book serves a dual purpose: It leads the students through a problem-solving scenario and teaches students that design failure is common in science and engineering. She pointed out that many books, including What Floats in a Moat, are available as read-alouds on YouTube. Royce demonstrated how students could conduct traditional classroom investigations from home using everyday materials and still participate in discourse using digital tools such as Padlet and Jamboard.

At the end of the session, Royce shared different ways teachers might use trade books, including for presenting a phenomenon or problem to students; for providing data represented in tables, graphs, maps, and so on; and as a source of scientific information.

With the knowledge I gained from this session, I began to create a list of books for the science lessons I was introducing to my students in May. Many birds had started appearing at our school’s bird feeder, so this was the perfect time to discuss migration, as well as why different birds have different beaks and why their nests are architecturally diverse.

At a local store, I found another book, Winter Sleep: A Hibernation Story, by Sean Taylor. I am always alert to the possibility of scientific inaccuracies in nonfiction picture books, so I immediately researched the mentions of animals to be certain my students wouldn’t develop misconceptions from this story. I found none, and bought the book. It is perfect because it motivates my students to look in their backyards. I also chose this book because another phenomenon was occurring, the end of hibernation.

Two other books I chose are The Beak of Birds by Richard Konicek-Moran, and Magpie's Nest by Joseph Jacobs and William Stobbs. These books are rich in scientific information, and my students and I discovered many things we did not know. The books elicited many questions and ideas for investigations.

I introduced my students to apps such as iBird Pro, which enabled my students to see photographs and hear the various calls each species makes. I engaged my students in an outdoor bird migration game, and we used various tools as models for different beaks and explored their uses. One student became so involved that he asked to bring his iPad home over the weekend to research the birds in his yard. He returned with information on the Red-Winged Blackbird, which he presented to the class. 

The session prompted me to research my picture book library, and I was surprised by how many books were perfect for engaging students in many areas of science. You may be wondering what other sessions I grouped with this session. My list of sessions and other resources appear below. I want to ask you this: “What trade/picture books do you recommend?” I will be excited to see your list!


  • NSTA Press Session: Integrating STEM and Literacy With Picture-Perfect STEM Lessons
  • Picture-Perfect STEM Lessons: Using Children's Books to Inspire STEM Learning
  • Integrating Inquiry and Literacy in the Elementary Science Classroom
  • Connecting Reading, Writing, Science, and Nature With the Next Time You See Book Series
  • Featured Panel: Linking Literacy—A Discussion With Authors on the Use of "Kidlit" in the Classroom
  • Integrating Hands-On STEM and Literacy Through Picture Books


Judy Boyle

Judy Boyle teaches grades K–8 in Divide, Montana. She is the outgoing NSTA Preschool/Elementary Science Division Director and the 2016 Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching awardee for Montana in science.

Note: This article is featured in the June 2021 issue of Next Gen Navigator, a monthly e-newsletter from NSTA delivering information, insights, resources, and professional learning opportunities for science educators by science educators on the Next Generation Science Standards and three-dimensional instruction. Click here to sign up to receive the Navigator every month.

The mission of NSTA is to promote excellence and innovation in science teaching and learning for all.

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