Strategies for introducing Nature of Science during read-alouds
By Jeanne L. Brunner and Christine McGrail
Trade books are widely used in elementary classes to supplement and support science teaching. Trade books are beneficial to use in elementary classes because they contain high-interest text with colorful images, describe up-to-date content, and use reader-friendly language. They also provide an excellent opportunity to connect with nature of science (NOS). This is especially true of books that describe people doing science, as NOS relates to “the wondering, investigating, questioning, data collecting, and analyzing” (NGSS Lead States 2013, Appendix H, p. 13). Many books simply describe people doing science, which does not automatically ensure that students will understand NOS (Brunner and Abd-El-Khalick 2017). In this article, we describe methods for identifying relevant NOS connections in trade books and how to capitalize on those connections to engage students in talk about NOS ideas.
Although trade books can be used to teach any aspect of NOS, we have focused on four related concepts that are accessible to children during read-alouds: scientific claims are based on empirical evidence, inferences explain phenomenon that cannot be directly observed based on their observable effects, scientists are creative at every stage of their investigation, and diverse people engage in science. Diversity includes people of different cultural, racial, and ethnic backgrounds; ages and genders; and professions, including community scientists. These concepts are consistent with descriptions of NOS from the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) from the categories related to “Scientific knowledge is based on empirical evidence” and “Science is a human endeavor” as well as research on teaching NOS in elementary grades. These are not the only ideas about NOS that should be addressed in the elementary grades, but we have selected these because research has shown them to be more developmentally appropriate than some of the more complex NOS ideas, such as the difference between theories and laws (McComas, Clough, and Nouri 2020).
Teaching nature of science might feel intimidating, or you may not feel that you have a deep enough understanding of nature of science to be able to teach it yourself. However, your students are already developing views of nature of science from experiences with science in school, books, and other media. This article includes several resources to help you plan for effective teaching of NOS. Online Table 1 provides a short description of each of the four NOS aspects highlighted in this article. In addition to reading the relevant sections of the NGSS, this table is an excellent reference for what concepts you can address to teach NOS at the elementary level. We have included in this table examples from the book Secrets of Sound: Studying the Calls and Songs of Whales, Elephants, and Birds (Sayre 2006) to help illustrate how specific content from the book connects with each of the highlighted aspects. We have also created a list of books from the NSTA/CBC Outstanding Science Trade Book list that describe people doing science, which provides the opportunity to incorporate these NOS ideas at the elementary level (see Supplemental Resources). These resources, along with the discussion starters described next, can create an accessible entry point for any teacher to begin introducing NOS into their elementary classes or enhance the practices of those who already include NOS in their instruction.
We have worked with over a dozen teachers who used read-alouds to teach NOS. During these read-alouds, students have probed their own views of NOS and changed those views to be more in line with those described in the standards. Creating opportunities to take part in NOS talk, through carefully planned discussion questions during the read-alouds, also provides teachers with an opportunity to informally assess students’ views of NOS. Moreover, including discussion of NOS at multiple points during a unit allows teachers to track changes in students’ views. We have noticed common discussion topics that teachers use to build on NOS connections in stories about people engaging in science: exploring diverse representations of people doing science, drawing connections to the scientific community, contextualizing NOS within the specific stories, and connecting with classroom activities. In the following sections, we share how a third-grade teacher, Mr. Russo, provided opportunities for his students to engage with NOS by using what we call “discussion starters” that relate to each of these topics. These discussion starters are examples of how teachers can create opportunities for students to reflect on, and share, their thoughts of NOS during read-alouds.
We focus on a read-aloud of The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind (Kamkwamba and Mealer 2012) to illustrate how Mr. Russo leveraged NOS connections into meaningful learning opportunities for his students. In this article, we have highlighted one aspect of NOS for each discussion topic, however it is possible, and desirable, to draw connections between different discussion topics and aspects than only those described here. To aid readers in understanding what these connections may look like, Table 2 provides a general overview of effective discussion starters for three discussion topics and four aspects of NOS. These may be adapted for use with other books.
Decades of research have shown that elementary-age children hold on to stereotypes of scientists as White, male, and from Western countries (Ferguson and Lezotte 2020). However, teachers can purposely choose science stories that share representations that differ from this stereotypical one. Exposing children to stories about diverse people engaging in different types of science activities (e.g., performing hands-on activities as well as engaging in cognitive activities) can help broaden views of who does science and how science happens (Sharkawy 2012).
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind tells the real-life story of William Kamkwamba as a 14-year-old boy in Malawi whose village was struggling with an extreme drought. As he worried about his family’s failing crops, and his family prayed for rain, William was also learning about windmills from library books. He used this information to solve the real-life problem of famine caused by the drought to create a windmill from scrap materials to power irrigation for his family’s crops.
From the beginning of the read-aloud, Mr. Russo prompted students to “think about what makes William a scientist” as he read the book. Further, he guided his students to think about how what William did was similar to what they do when they act as scientists. As the story progressed, Mr. Russo highlighted that William was growing up in a culture that looked very different from the American culture that the students were in, pointing out the privileges students had that were not available to William. Mr. Russo continued by explaining that William, like other scientists, contributed to meaningful science because he was forced to solve a real-life problem. Mr. Russo made clear that science happens everywhere, and people from different backgrounds engage in science. He included not only William as a scientist but his students as scientists as well.
Students should have ample hands-on experiences as a way of engaging with the practices of science. However, it is not realistic to expect students to have the exact same experiences of professional scientists. Nevertheless, reading about scientists can provide a connection to scientists and the science community that is not always accessible in the elementary classroom. Even when a story focuses on one particular scientist, such as William in The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, teachers may use discussion starters to draw connections to the broader science community.
Scientists use creativity throughout all stages of their investigations. Mr. Russo drew out connections with scientists being creative when reading about how William laid in bed, dreaming about how radios and trucks worked. However, he did not ask specifically about William. Instead, he asked his students about scientists in general. “Scientists make observations about the world and come up with questions like how does something work or why does something happen. When they do this, they are being creative. Why is asking a new question being creative?” He continued to broaden the discussion to include all scientists, including his students and William. “So as a scientist, like we’re all scientists, the boy in this book is a scientist.” He led his students on a short discussion of what creativity meant and eventually a student shared that being creative is “doing a question no one had heard before.” This aligns with a view of creativity as innovation and is a relatively easy way for young students to begin thinking about creativity in science. The discussion continued as new students added their thoughts. [Quotes throughout the article have been lightly edited for clarity.]
S1: Being creative, doing other questions, is not telling the same questions.
Mr. Russo: Yeah! If you come up with a question no one has ever had before, if a scientist comes up with something completely new, then it’s a way to change what you think about the world.
After some additional discussion, Mr. Russo led students to think about how creativity in questions translates to developing a new understanding of the world.
Mr. Russo: How would a scientist answer a question if they have it?
S2: They have to think about it, and then maybe write about it.
Mr. Russo: What other things do scientists do that might help them understand things?
S3: They might do some experiments.
Similar questions can be used to draw attention to different types of creativity (Online Table 2).
There are powerful opportunities to contextualize NOS within specific content areas by connecting with the specific science in the story being told. Drawing attention to the types of evidence that is used in the stories is one way to do this (i.e., connecting to the empirical NOS). In particular, it allows teachers to describe the different types of evidence that are used and connect with the processes of observation that generate the evidence. Understanding that empirical evidence is necessary to support scientific claims—and this is what separates science from other ways of knowing—is a central part to understanding the empirical NOS.
Throughout The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, William thought about both the science he used to create windmills and the magic of his ancestors. While working in his family fields, he was looking for magical beings at the same time that he wondered how trucks work. However, he also realized that, “magic could not bring the rain” (Kamkwamba and Mealer 2012), leading him to use science to build the windmill. As William first created his windmill and used it to light a bulb, Mr. Russo highlighted a connection to the empirical NOS. He acknowledged that lighting a bulb may have seemed like magic, especially because the wind that turned the windmill cannot be seen, but William had evidence that it existed. “He imagined the wind could be an important source of energy for his town because he could see it moving things and feel it on his skin, even if he couldn’t see the wind itself.” He went on to ask students about what types of evidence they saw that electrical energy existed.
Mr. Russo: How do we know electricity was working when you woke up this morning?
S1: The lights turned on.
T: Any other ways?
S2: I cooked.
T: Ok, so when you cooked something this morning.
Mr. Russo concluded by asking how science was different than magic. Mr. Russo did not dismiss the culture of using magic to explain things, acknowledging that “it feels like magic to William,” but instead focused on the need for science to be backed by empirical claims.
In the elementary grades, teachers have the unique opportunity to build on themes that cross subjects. During read-alouds, teachers can use discussion starters that capitalize on similarities between the stories being told and the activities that students are doing in the classroom, such as hands-on science investigations. At times this might even extend to areas outside of science. One particularly fruitful area for this appears to be in identifying how drawing inferences in science is similar to drawing inferences in English Language Arts activities.
Mr. Russo read The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind during a unit on energy. Before the read-aloud, he described how the book related to their energy unit and then reviewed the three aspects of NOS previously discussed, diversity, creativity, and the use of empirical evidence. We have found that reminding students of these aspects is an effective move because it primes students to think about the NOS ideas throughout the story. When Mr. Russo discussed inferences, he drew a connection to a “picture of the day” activity that students completed in English Language Arts. In this activity, students looked at a picture and were tasked with finding clues and using them to draw inferences about what was happening. For English Language Arts, they focused on connecting the inference with the evidence from the pictures by using the word because. For example, students inferred that people on an amusement park ride were scared because they were screaming. Screaming provided the evidence of fear, even though fear itself cannot be seen.
Once students were reminded of what inferences were and had a common understanding to build on from their English Language Arts activity, Mr. Russo then elaborated on drawing inferences in science. Instead of focusing on the language (i.e., using because), he focused on the type of evidence required to support an inference. He described how “William had evidence that energy was all around him, even though he could not see it. He could feel the wind and see it moving objects.” In both cases, students drew inferences about things they could not directly observe based on the data they had. Mr. Russo was able to connect with what his students already knew from their English Language Arts activity and extend their understanding of inferences to include activities in which scientists engage.
NOS is best learned when it is included as an explicit objective. As with any other learning objective, it is important to plan for how you will address NOS in your instruction, as well as assess students’ understanding of it. Trade books are a fun and engaging way to bring NOS into the science classroom but require thoughtful planning to be effective. We have found that the discussion starters shared here are adaptable to a variety of books on different subjects across the elementary level. Through targeting specific NOS ideas during read-alouds, such as those shared in Table 1, and pairing them with these discussion starters, teachers can create opportunities for students to talk about NOS ideas, making students’ ideas public and allowing students to reflect on these views. Moreover, these discussions provide the opportunity for reflection, which is essential for developing more informed understandings of who does science, how science works, and how science connects to other areas of study. Using multiple discussion starters encourages repeated reflection and provides observable data through which teachers can track changes in students’ thinking. Thus, using discussion starters during read-alouds not only allows for students to change their views of NOS but also can be used as an informal assessment tool for understanding what views students hold and how those views change. ●
Download the book list at https://bit.ly/3QFZfL9
Brunner, J.L., and F. Abd-El-Khalick. 2017. Representations of nature of science in U.S. elementary science trade books. In Representations of nature of science in school science textbooks: A global perspective, eds. C.V. McDonald and F. Abd-El-Khalick, 135–151. The Netherlands: Springer.
Ferguson, S.L., and S.M. Lezotte. 2020. Exploring the state of science stereotypes: Systematic review and meta-analysis of the Draw-A-Scientist Checklist. School Science & Mathematics 120: 55–65.
Kamkwamba, W., and B. Mealer. 2012. The boy who harnessed the wind. New York: Penguin.
McComas, W.F., M.P. Clough, and N. Nouri. 2020. Nature of science and classroom practice: A review of the literature with implications for effective NOS instruction. In Nature of science in science instruction: Rationales and strategies, ed. W.F. McComas, 67–111. The Netherlands: Springer.
NGSS Lead States. 2013. Next generation science standards. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.
Sayre, A.P. 2006. Secrets of sound: Studying the calls and songs of whales, elephants, and birds. Boston: Sandpiper.
Sharkawy, A. 2012. Exploring the potential of using stories about diverse scientists and reflective activities to enrich primary students’ images of scientists and scientific work. Cultural Studies of Science Education 7: 307–340.
Reports ArticleFrom the Field: Freebies and Opportunities for Science and STEM Teachers, August 16, 2022
Journal ArticleCommunity-Informed STEM Teaching Strategies for Early Childhood Educators During COVID