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Teaching Comprehension in the Digital Age

Pausing videos to scaffold scientific literacy practice

Science and Children—May/June 2021 (Volume 58, Issue 5)

By Beth Buchholz, Damiana Pyles, Peaches Hash, and Kris Hagaman

Teaching Comprehension in the Digital Age

Science and Children routinely addresses the challenges teachers face in integrating the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) alongside the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) (e.g., Forsythe, Jackson, and Contreras 2018; Sweetman and Sabella 2018). We aim to extend this interdisciplinary conversation by sharing insights garnered from working closely with a kindergarten teacher who positioned video as a key informational text in her literacy and science instruction. The NGSS science and engineering practices for grades K–2 explicitly identify “media” as a scientific tool/text, wherein children are expected to “read grade-appropriate texts and/or use media to obtain scientific information to describe patterns in the natural world” (K-LS1-1) and “to construct an evidence-based account for natural phenomena” (1-LS3-1). In using an instructional approach similar to an interactive read-aloud, we explain how teachers can strategically pause scientific videos to invite/prompt interactions that help children comprehend scientific concepts/content as well as engage in childrens’ “real life” literacy practices employed by scientists to learn about the natural world outside of school. Ultimately, we outline three strategic instructional practices for pausing video in the science classroom: (1) pausing to learn/extend scientific vocabulary, (2) pausing to practice “reading”/describing the natural world, and (3) pausing to talk as scientists.

Reading Comprehension Instruction

The “interactive read-aloud” is a powerful, flexible instructional routine employed regularly by K–2 literacy teachers to teach children how to read, engage with, process, and learn from/with texts (Duke and Pearson 2002). As part of this instructional routine, sometimes referred to as shared reading, teachers read a few pages of a book before pausing to think aloud about their own metacognitive reading processes and/or prompting children to engage in particular literacy practices and actions/behaviors (e.g., predicting, making connections, rereading). When teaching literacy strategies for making sense of informational texts, teachers most often turn to picture books, textbooks, or short articles for interactive read-alouds. However, in taking a broader view of “texts” as suggested by both the NGSS and CCSS, teachers might also position informational videos (as well as diagrams, graphs, websites, etc.) as real-life scientific texts worthy of and in need of explicit reading instruction.

Classroom and Curricular Context

Ms. H, a veteran teacher with over 20 years of experience, taught kindergarten at Clearview Elementary School, a rural elementary school in the mountains of Appalachia. Each year she structured her yearlong kindergarten science curriculum around preparing children for a field trip to the zoo in May. She not only saw content playing a role in this preparation but also the development of scientific literacy practices (reading, writing, speaking, and listening) that would facilitate children’s authentic engagement as scientists within particular zoo exhibits as well as the natural world.

Ms. H taught her unit each spring for four weeks (30 minutes a day). In the first two weeks of the unit, children learned how to observe birds and make general comparisons of birds’ physical characteristics. In addition to engaging with videos and printed texts, children also participated in a beak simulation/lab and went bird watching and nest hunting around the school’s property. The aim was not for children to memorize the names or features of birds, but to learn how to compare the similarities and differences in birds’ physical characteristics (see Figure 1) (with a focus on beaks and legs/feet) and to understand how these physical differences (i.e., adaptations) offered clues as to what a bird eats and where a bird lives.

Classroom anchor chart.
Classroom anchor chart.

For the final two weeks of the unit, children explored the specific “aviary guide” they would use during the upcoming zoo field trip (Buchholz and Pyles 2018). Here children began to learn about specific species of birds (e.g., ostrich, flamingo, puffin) through whole-class, guided, and independent inquiries, though the focus was still on describing and comparing physical characteristics. Formative and summative assessments were embedded throughout the unit, but Ms. H felt strongly the true summative assessment was children’s ability to use the aviary guide at the zoo in order to identify, describe, and discuss birds with one another just as scientists/ornithologists might in the wild (i.e., an authentic performance task).

Informational picture books about birds were used to support learning throughout the unit, but the challenge of spotting and identifying birds in real life required knowledge about physical characteristics with repeated practice/experience observing birds move quickly across space. Ms. H’s use of videos as informational texts offered opportunities for children to connect content knowledge with scientific literacy skills. Identifying, discussing, and comparing observations of different species of birds provided classroom experiences that addressed kindergarten science and engineering practices that children will “use observations (firsthand or from media) to describe patterns in the natural world” (K-LS1-1) as well as first-grade disciplinary core ideas that “individuals of the same kind of plant or animal are recognizable as similar but can also vary in many ways” (1-LS3.B).

The Focal Video

Ms. H carefully curated collections of videos to use across her science units. In this column, we closely examine her use of one video called “Inside Birding: Size and Shape” from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s (2010) YouTube channel. She liked to begin the bird unit with this video because it got young children “excited about being able to tell the difference between two birds [the hairy and downy woodpeckers] that one would automatically think look alike until you really look at them.” Ms. H framed the challenging task of differentiating similar looking species, particularly species that children could see in their own backyards, as a problem-based lesson “hook” that invited children to authentically engage in looking beyond the general silhouette and common features of birds (e.g., feathers, wings, beak).

The focal video features scientists who advocate for the importance of using size and shape to identify birds rather than the color of markings and/or plumage details, which can be quite variable. Importantly, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology videos are not specifically created for children; they are created for the public in the “long-standing tradition of documenting and sharing information about the natural world ... to improve the understanding and protection of birds and biodiversity.” In other words, the video’s “text complexity,” of which the CCSS places increasing emphasis across grade levels, far exceeds the kind of grade-level texts typically encountered by kindergartners regarding vocabulary, syntax, and scientific concepts. Consequently, it was Ms. H’s use of an interactive instructional routine, similar to an interactive read-aloud, that allowed her to scaffold scientific literacy practices that helped make this text approachable (and comprehensible) for young children. In addition to the verbal/speech mode (narration, dialogue), the complexity of comprehending this video also involved making sense of the interplay of the visual (moving images, still photos, diagrams, text) and audio (music, bird calls).

Examining the Instructional Routine: An Interactive Read-Aloud With Video

Ms. H’s instructional decision to periodically pause “Inside Birding: Size and Shape” moved children from passively watching/consuming the complex video to interacting with the video as well as each other, positioning children as active meaning makers:

…[in every] way the students are processing the language, ideas, and meaning of the text. Occasionally, the teacher stops briefly to demonstrate text talk or invite interaction. These pauses are intentional and planned to invite students to join in the thinking and the talking about the text. (Fountas and Pinnell 2006, p. 216, emphasis added)

After beginning the video, Ms. H’s first pause occurred at the one-minute mark when she explicitly framed what children were learning to read/view today, stating, “So, these two scientists [on the screen] study birds, and someone who studies birds is called an ornithologist. Can you say that? Yep. Ornithologist. So, you’re going to be an ornithologist: someone who studies birds. Here we go!” In some respects, this practice of framing the reading/viewing task has close connections to the print-based practice of “setting a purpose” for reading. By inviting children to “be ornithologists, Ms. H leveraged the affordances of video to transport children from the classroom to the woods, shifting their perspectives from students to scientists.

Over the course of the 10-minute video, Ms. H paused the video 18 times to invite interaction (for a total of 20 minutes of instructional time). Below, we examine three moments when Ms. H paused the video (see Table 1 for an overview). In examining these pauses and subsequent interactions, we aim to demonstrate how teachers can bring together ELA and science standards to help children learn to “read” informational texts (the video) and subsequently the world as a scientist.

Focal Interaction #1: Pausing to Learn/Extend Scientific Vocabulary

Ms. H often paused the video to (re)introduce, apply, or extend disciplinary-specific vocabulary. For example, when the scientists in the video identified a “songbird” that was “smaller than a crow, but larger than a sparrow,” Ms. H paused the video and asked:

Ms. H: “So what group did [the scientist] put that bird in? Remember? We talked about the groups this morning. What group did she put it in?”

Her question offered a quick check of children’s oral comprehension just as a teacher might do during a read-aloud of a picture book. Based on the child’s response, Ms. H briefly extended this interactional moment:

Student: “A music bird.”

Ms. H: “A music bird. That’s right. And what was the word they used for music?”

Student: “Song”

Ms. H: “Song. So, she decided it was a songbird. Now, what size is a songbird?

Students: “Small”

Ms. H: “They’re small. Not necessarily really tiny because [the scientist] said it was a medium-sized songbird, right?”

Ms. H shifted children’s understandings of a “music bird” to the more scientific term/classification of songbird before inviting children to discuss the concept of size, working through distinctions between “small” and “tiny” and “medium-size.” This focus on subtly shifting vocabulary is critical in helping children learn to participate in the academic social languages of scientific knowledge production: “more children fail in school … because they cannot cope with ‘academic language’ than because they cannot decode print” (Gee 2001, p. 62). When it comes to video, these more complicated shifts might not happen on their own for young children due to the fast-paced nature of the verbal/audio mode and to the newness of the scientific language. By choosing to pause and invite interaction, Ms. H slowed down the academic languages (verbal/audio) and invited children to interact around/with disciplinary-specific science vocabulary, syntax, and discourses before moving them on to process more new information.

Focal Interaction #2: Pausing to Practice Reading/Describing the Natural World

Ms. H often paused the video to help the children learn from the visual images, repeating a similar instructional pattern several times with increasing complexity. Early on she paused the video so that the students could compare the colors of birds, and later she paused to prompt children to compare the overall size of two birds on the screen. Finally, near the end of the lesson, Ms. H spent extended time having the students synthesize and apply their learning about how to observe birds’ characteristics by inviting them to describe and make predictions about the species based on visual cues. To initiate discussion during this particular pause, she prompted students using a misconception check (a formative assessment strategy) to determine whether children comprehended the scientists’ approach of comparing the beak/bill size to the overall size of the bird’s head rather than just looking at the overall size of the bird:

Ms. H: “So, if you saw a woodpecker, and it looked like one of these, would be a good idea if you just saw one to look at just the size of the whole bird?”

Ada: “Yeah.”

The child’s incorrect response (“Yeah”), prompted Ms. H to extend this interaction to help children correct this misconception and then apply how scientists “see” birds differently by attending to patterns of physical proportion:

Ms. H: “It’d be kind of hard to tell [which species of woodpecker it is], wouldn’t it? You wouldn’t know if [the bird you’re seeing] was just a young one. It could be a baby. What should you maybe look at that would help you a little bit better?”

Ada: “The head.”

Ms. H: “The head and the…?”

Ada: “Beak.”

Ms. H: “Beak. That’s right. If it has a long beak, then what is it?”

Students: “Hairy [woodpecker].”

Ms. H: “Hairy. If it is a short beak…”

Students: “It’s a downy [woodpecker].”

Ms. H: “Alright. Let’s see if you’re right...”

Ms. H clarified a misunderstanding about whether to look at the size of the “whole bird,” which could lead to an inaccurate result. Instead, she helped children focus on comparing two key parts of the bird: the head and the beak. Then, based on what they had learned about this pattern, she asked the students to make a prediction (another formative assessment strategy) about which bird was visible on the screen.

Pausing the video to make a prediction and then watching to confirm is similar to reading further on in a print text to check a prediction. “At its core [predicting] is making predictions and then reading[/viewing] to see how they turned out, but it also entails activities that come with different labels, such as activating prior knowledge” (Duke and Pearson 2002, p. 212). Making and checking predictions is just as important in digital texts like video as it is in print texts; in fact, given the fast pace of the verbal/audio and visual modes, it becomes even more vital with video texts to slow down the text and interrogate it before moving on to check the prediction.

Focal Interaction #3: Pausing to Talk as Scientists

Embedded within both of the previous interactions were invitations for young children to read/view a video of the natural world as a scientist might, in addition to invitations to practice talking to each other as scientists. In particular, interactions around this video allowed Ms. H to model and scaffold children’s use of comparative language/syntax in describing different components of birds’ bodies. At one point, after pausing the video, Ms. H invited children to make observations between two birds. One child responded:

Virginia: “Um. That...that one is a little bit smaller. And one’s big.”

Ms. H: “Is it the… [pointing] This is the downy [woodpecker]. [pointing to other bird] This is the hairy [woodpecker]. So, use the name of the woodpecker.”


Ms. H: “… You were comparing them, and you said one’s…which one though? The downy, or the hairy? Which one were you going to talk about? So use that in your sentence.”

Here Ms. H helped students see that scientists use the precise name of a bird when describing it to others. In the following interaction, she modeled for students how to share descriptions in complete sentences using the suffix “–er” to compare physical characteristics.

Ms. H: “Gregory, what do you notice?”

Gregory: “Um...downy has little small, like, beak. Hairy has the long beak.”

Ms. H: “Okay. So, Gregory noticed that the beak on the downy woodpecker is smaller than the beak on the hairy woodpecker.”

Ultimately, during this extended “pause,” children produced the following observations without any adult follow-ups: “The downy woodpecker’s wings are shorter than the hairy woodpecker’s wings;” “The downy woodpecker has a smaller head.” The ability to see differences and patterns as a scientist and then to articulate those observations using academic language and syntax (i.e., complete sentence/thought, precise name of bird, use of comparative adjective) offer a complex portrait of what it looks like to bring together literacy and science practices as part of an interactive “read”-aloud with a video.

Ms. H’s use of formative assessments and scaffolding embedded across the 20-minute interactive video routine were integral to all children’s success on the subsequent summative assessment task. Each child was given a black-and-white photograph of two similar-looking woodpeckers and asked to independently identify each species and then communicate their evidence-based conclusions/rationale in one or more sentences (see Table 2 for examples of children’s work on this summative task). All of Ms. H’s students were able to be successful with this task (including students receiving ELL and special education services); she attributed this to repeated opportunities for oral rehearsal and guided practice as part of the interactive instructional routine. Not only did this summative assessment track children’s ability to closely observe, describe, and compare animals’ physical characteristics, it elevated the academic expectation by asking children to construct full sentences using academic languages and content-specific vocabulary, comparative adjectives, and correct syntax.


Across the entire unit, Ms. H’s use of the interactive instructional routine with videos in conjunction with print-based texts allowed children to practice oral and written modes of describing patterns observed in the natural world and communicating about how individuals of the same kind of animal can vary in many ways. More specifically, Ms. H’s three strategic instructional practices for pausing the video (see Table 1) provided a way to scaffold the students’ learning as readers and scientists. Pausing and inviting interaction helps young children learn to make sense of complex ideas and patterns in the natural world as they practice ways of acting, talking, and thinking like scientists. Advances in technology have made video a particularly critical tool/text in obtaining, evaluating, and communicating knowledge across scientific disciplines. Scientists regularly rely on video to collect and analyze data as well as a tool to share their findings with other scientists and the public. Consequently, literacy instruction in science classrooms must prepare students to understand these expansive, multimodal forms of texts (Wilson 2008). Therefore, as demonstrated by Ms. H, rather than young children being overwhelmed with fast moving information (across verbal, audio, and visual modes), strategically pausing and inviting interaction allows students the time and space to engage in the literacy practices necessary for being a scientist: obtaining, evaluating, and communicating knowledge about the natural world.


The authors wish to thank Reich College of Education, which supported this project through a partnership mini-grant that encourages collaborations between public school teachers and university teacher educators.

Online Resources

Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s YouTube Page

Birding Skills YouTube Playlist

Inside Birding: Size and Shape [Focal Video]

Inside Birding: Habitat

Bird Feeding Adaptations Video

Bird Cams

“Beaks!” Lesson Plan [Adaptations]

North Carolina Zoo’s Online Aviary Habitat Guide

Videos Referenced in the Article

Inside Birding: Size and Shape

Bird Beaks: What Do Birds Eat?

Beth Buchholz ( is an assistant professor, Damiana Pyles is an associate professor, and Peaches Hash is a lecturer in the Department of English, all at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. Kris Hagaman is a kindergarten teacher in western North Carolina. 


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Cornell Lab of Ornithology. 2010. Inside birding: Size and shape [video file].

Duke, N., and D. Pearson. 2002. Effective practices for developing reading comprehension. In What research has to say about reading instruction, eds. A.E. Farstrup, and S.J. Samuels, 205–242. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Forsythe, M., J. Jackson, and L. Contreras. 2018. Hiding in plain sight: How to identify and use trade books to support the 5E Instructional Model. Science and Children 56 (2): 80–87.

Fountas, I.C., and G.S. Pinnell. 2006. Teaching for comprehending and fluency: Thinking, talking, and writing about reading, K–8. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Gee, J.P. 2001. Language in the science classroom: Academic social languages as the heart of school-based literacy. Invited Paper presented at Crossing Borders: Connecting Science and Literacy Conference, Sponsored by National Science Foundation and The Elementary Science Integration Projects. Baltimore, MD.

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