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Multimodal Text Sets to Use Literature and Engage All Learners in the Science Classroom

Science Scope—November/December 2020 (Volume 44, Issue 2)

By Amy Lannin, Rachel Juergensen, Cassandra Smith, Heba Abdelnaby, Delinda van Garderen, William Folk, Torrey Palmer and Lori Pinkston

Multimodal Text Sets to Use Literature and Engage All Learners in the Science Classroom

To make a prairie it takes
A clover and one bee
One clover, and a bee
And revery
The revery alone will do
If bees are few
—Emily Dickinson


Though written over 200 years ago, Emily Dickinson’s nature poems, especially about bees, offer not just beautiful language, but also an invitation to pause and wonder about the scientific understanding from her observations. We know that bees are, in fact, needed not just to make prairies, but for so much more. Revery (daydreaming, meditating) may not make a prairie, but perhaps Dickinson is getting at the importance of taking time to pause, look, listen, and think. This revery may help connect literature and science in our classrooms. A larger question is, what can a poet, novelist, or essayist provide for students’ sense-making processes to understand phenomena, or in other words, “doing science” (Rhodes and Feder 2014, p. 77).

Reading and writing can help all learners to engage in the science classroom and develop scientific knowledge (Norris and Phillips 2003). Multimodal text sets are collections of resources from different genres, media, and levels of complexity that are strategically sequenced to build vocabulary, background knowledge, and interest around a particular science topic. The text sets provide scaffolds to support learners in accessing and comprehending complex text to meet the expectations of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and the Common Core State Standards—English Language Arts (CCSS-ELA; NGAC and CCSSO 2010a) or state equivalents. We have found that as teachers implemented multimodal text sets, their learners developed critical thinking, confidence, and engagement (Juergensen et al. 2020). Students also showed statistically significant growth in their ability to develop arguments and support those arguments with evidence and reasoning (Juergensen et al. 2020). It is important to note that all learners, including students who may find scientific texts a challenge, students who need support with reading and writing, and students who may need specific instructional supports are able to use instructional scaffolds and content scaffolds to build stamina and background to understand more complex texts.

Multimodal and multigenre text sets support reading complex scientific texts and provide opportunities for students to work with information in a variety of modalities. In the Linking Science and Literacy for All Learners program, we incorporated literary texts into science units on pollination, heat stress, and vaping, thus creating text set models that could then be adapted for other topics within the science curriculum. Such disciplinary integration works well when educators can collaborate, such as in this program that includes English language arts, science, and special education teachers (Juergensen et al. 2020).

Working with a complex text: Multimodal text sets

Text complexity has gained attention over the years since the Common Core State Standards (CCCS; NGAC and CCSSO 2010) were developed. While conceptualizations of text complexity vary (Amendum, Conradi, and Hiebert 2017), we distinguish between text complexity and text difficulty where text complexity refers to the properties of a text alone, but text difficulty refers to how hard or easy a text is for a reader (Mesmer, Cunningham, and Hiebert 2012). We use the criteria set forth in the CCCS (Council of Chief State School Officers, 2017) to identify and analyze appropriately complex texts for middle grades (see Figure 1). Three main criteria for analyzing the complexity of a text (both complexity and difficulty) are used: (1) quantitative analysis, (2) qualitative analysis, and (3) reader and task considerations.

Criteria for analyzing the complexity of a text.

Analyzing text complexity and difficulty through these criteria can guide the teacher in making appropriate instructional decisions based on student needs. Multimodal text sets from different genres, media, and levels of reading difficulty, strategically sequenced to build vocabulary and knowledge, become tools to help students meet the expectations of the standards. There are many ways of organizing multimodal text sets. For the Linking Science and Literacy for All Learners program, the topic of a text set is determined by the anchor text. The anchor text is the focus of a close reading with instructional support. The number of subsidiary texts, materials, and resources, what we call scaffolds, can vary depending on the dimensions (the science or engineering practice, the disciplinary core idea, and the crosscutting concept) for a given topic (see Figure 2). Each anchor text that has been developed includes connections to the various science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines.

Organization of a multimodal text set.

Organization of a multimodal text set.

What is important is that all the scaffolds in the set are connected meaningfully to each other to support students in building vocabulary and knowledge to deeply understand the anchor text. In a sense, the texts and materials talk to one another so that in reading the set, students build a coherent body of knowledge around a topic. For instance, a poem may introduce a topic as teachers implement instructional scaffolds to start building background knowledge and engage students in forming questions. Students may read a range of articles, content scaffolds, that span a variety of grade levels but that are carefully selected to continue building background knowledge. During the reading of these, students are guided to locate and analyze key vocabulary and concepts, to find evidence presented in articles, and to analyze text features in scientific articles. See Figure 3 for further information as to the features of a strong text set.

Figure 3. General features of strong and weak text sets, adapted from the Guide to Creating Text Sets for Grades 2-12 (Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, 2013).

Strong sets

Weak sets

Build student knowledge about a topic; meaningfully connect to the anchor text.

Resources are not related or connected.

Resources are authentic, rich, varied and worthy of student attention.

Have limited variety and many textbook passages.

Range of text types (literary and informational) and other formats and related resources (such as inquiry).

Focused exclusively on one genre or format (unless the set is a genre study).

Text complexity levels support student achievement of the grade-level complexity demands for reading.

Text complexity levels are erratic and do not support the staircase of text complexity called for by the grade level.

Note: Resources in a set may start below the quantitative demands of the grade band in an effort to build toward the anchor text; concurrently, some resources may be placed above the band to provide an opportunity for advanced engagement with the content, after students have built vocabulary and background knowledge in the anchor text.

As stated in Figure 3, a strong text set includes a range of text types such as literary and informational text. In the next section we provide literary text examples from two different text sets, each based on a unique anchor text and topic. For each of these two topics and anchor texts, we describe it and provide example scaffolds (text set and inquiry experiences) used to help address complex demands of the text with all learners in mind. As they are developed, the anchor texts and text sets are available at the program website (see Resources).

“Flight of the Bumblebee” Multimodal text set

The anchor text for one of our multimodal text sets, “Flight of the Bumblebee” (FOTB), was adapted from a peer-reviewed scientific article (Miller-Struttman et al. 2017). This middle grade–level complex anchor text has a Lexile of 1020 (range 900–1105; sixth to eighth grade) and, when analyzed qualitatively, involves various demands including: subject matter knowledge, (i.e., pollination, acoustic monitoring), academic language (i.e., correlate, hypothesize), sentence structure (i.e., “While we are accustomed to using sound waves to carry messages—with the radio and our cell phones, for instance—sound waves are also used to gather information about organisms”), and graphs. Given the complexity of the text, many readers may struggle to engage in the text and understand the content.

As an introduction to the anchor text, teachers may use two scaffolds in the FOTB text set: the poem “To Make a Prairie” by Emily Dickinson (2000) and an instrumental orchestral interlude Flight of the Bumblebee by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (2004). After reading the poem, listening to the interlude, and displaying images of bees, students write in their journal and share based on the following prompts: How do hearing and seeing help you understand and describe the sounds made by bees? What is Emily Dickinson saying about bees and what bees do? How necessary are bees?

Finally, students draw a wave model of the sounds of bees, label and describe the key features, and share with a partner how these features reflect what they hear and imagine. These scaffolds allow students to question, build awareness, and gain some background knowledge with multimodal texts (audio and written text) at the start of a learning cycle, and before the anchor text is read.

Another scaffold in the text set is a picture book titled Flowers are Calling by Rita Grey (2015). Prior to reading, the teacher shares the book cover and title with the students and asks what they think the title means. The following questions are posed before reading the book, and the students are asked to jot down any notes while the book is being read aloud:

  • What is the author’s purpose?
  • What is something new you learned from this book?
  • How does this book add to what you have already learned?
  • What new questions does it raise?

After reading, students share their notes with each other. Utilizing a literary text allows students to experience a different genre to build their vocabulary and background knowledge, but they also love participating in a read aloud! Figure 4 provides one teacher’s adaptation of these literary texts as shown in one lesson that was part of her FOTB unit.


Sample 5E lesson plan for Flight of the Bumblebee

Lesson: The Flowers are Calling    

Duration: 1 Class period (45–60 minutes)


  • Students will identify and explain the central/main ideas in informational text.
  • Students will cite textual evidence used to support central/main ideas in informational text.
  • Students will identify and explain how evidence in informational text supports the central/main idea. 
  • Students will infer meaning and author’s purpose in informational text.


Picture book The Flowers are Calling with pages displayed; copies of the final page for students to highlight.


Begin the class with a journal prompt in response to the Emily Dickinson poem, “To Make a Prairie”:  Based on the poem, what did Dickinson understand about bees? What do you think this poem means and why?


Introduce the picture book by showing the cover and reading the title (students may want to sit on the floor near the teacher in order to see the pictures). Ask: What is confusing about this title? (Flowers don’t make sounds, do they?)  As you read the book aloud, pause to show the images, insert discussion questions as appropriate: What do you notice about the genre/style/language? What do you think is the message purpose of the book? What claims does the author make and what evidence is used to support them?


Provide students with a journal page to write down new information. They could do this  individually or with a shoulder partner (see Rolling Journal Activities in Online Supplemental Resources). After a few minutes of writing, share with shoulder partner or others in a small group. Then give another minute or two to add to the journal page. Students can first share with a partner, and then partners can combine into groups of four. During group share time, provide clear directions that each person shares by reading out loud one line (or more) of text. Group members then say “thank you” and may ask questions. The goal is for students to hear one another and to give each student the chance to read out loud one line from their journal. A variety of group formations can help all students learn together. 


Display or provide copies of the last page of the book. Explain that this page is different from the rest of the book and ask, How is this page different? How does it support/fit the rest of the book?

With shoulder partners or small groups, use highlighters to identify claims, evidence, and reasoning.  (If possible, use a different color highlighter for claim, evidence, and reasoning.)


Ask students to respond to the following questions in their journal:

  • How do the claims and evidence you just found on this page support the rest of the book?
  • What claim can you make about the author’s intent in writing this book? Use evidence to support your claim and explain your reasoning.

Students’ responses to these questions and the writing in their journals throughout the lesson become important formative assessments of their understanding of the content and of the lesson’s objectives. Because this is a formative assessment, a quick check of their understanding and marks on the journal, such as a ⎫ or ⎫+, with brief comments, can inform the teacher and the student regarding the development of ideas so far in the lesson.


Show/display the following:

Ask: Would you use this information in the book if you were the author? Why/Why not? Explain.


Determine student understanding of claim/evidence/reasoning identification through the highlighting done on text from the last page.

Determine student understanding of claim/evidence/reasoning through the students’ writing in response to the above questions. See rubric for journals in Online Supplemental Resources. 

Earth and Human Body Systems multimodal text set

The anchor text for this text set was developed from a peer-reviewed published paper (Steinweg and Gutowski 2015) and addresses the concerns of increased temperatures leading to more heat stress on the human body. The Lexile of the anchor text is 1060 (sixth to eighth grade). Based on the qualitative analysis, the text is rich with knowledge requirements including: scientific terms related to subject matter knowledge (i.e., climate, climate models, heat stress, sickle cell anemia), academic language (i.e., projections, determine, hypotheses), sentence structure (i.e., “To study the daily and monthly weather, properties of the atmosphere such as the temperature, humidity, precipitation [rain or snow], wind speed and air pressure are measured”), and figures and graphs. One of the scaffolds is the poem “Heat,” by Hilda Doolittle (1915), which uses imagery and simple language to illustrate the impact of heat. The poet creates the sense of the severe heat when the air feels thick, and the poet is calling out to the wind for help:

O wind, rend open the heat,
cut apart the heat,
rend it to tatters.

Though many students may already have experiences with severe heat, the poem helps to personify “heat” and can engage students in the topic before they start reading other informational texts, leading to the anchor text.

Another text example is a biography of a scientist who studied sickle cell anemia: Doris Wethers Oral History. In the biography, Dr. Wethers, an African American scientist, narrates her clinical and research experience to Joseph Dancis, a doctor at New York University (interview conducted February 26, 2002; American Academy of Pediatrics, 2018). Students create a timeline to trace the discovery of sickle cell anemia, including the National Sickle Cell Anemia Control Act in 1972 and establishment of government clinics to screen and counsel patients. The students identify the importance of research in this area, address the shocking statistics about its effects (i.e., 50% of children with sickle cell anemia died before they were 20 years old), and show how this evidence led to policy changes. Furthermore, this biography highlights pioneering scientists, such as Dr. Doris Wethers.

Fiction and literary texts enrich students’ background knowledge about weather and climate change by providing different perspectives. In the short story from India titled “Horegallu” by Sudha Murty (2006), students identify ways people in other parts of the world handle heat. Horegallu is an Indian word which means a big stone that bears weight, and it is usually under trees. The story elaborates how the horegallu offers rest in the shade for the Indian travelers and the villagers during heatwaves. Similarly, Same Sun Here, a novel by Silas House and Neela Vaswani (2012), provides another window for adolescent learners to view climate issues. In this novel, Meena, an Indian immigrant girl living in New York City’s Chinatown, and River, a Kentucky coal miner’s son, are pen pals who share their thoughts and experiences about life, including environmental and social stresses. As students read the short story or novel, they write to the following questions:

  • What is the environmental challenge addressed in the text?
  • How are humans and the environment affected?
  • What questions do you have as you think of these environmental challenges?

From these texts, students connect the more regional issues presented in the anchor text to a wider perspective about the impact of climate on earth and human systems.


Students’ engagement and learning can be aided by using text sets that include multiple types of texts that “expand students’ opportunities to read about and understand important content” (Schoenbach, Greenleaf, and Murphy 2012, p. 11). As an example, we return to Emily Dickinson for how literary text helps to develop the obtaining, evaluating, and communicating students need to do in science. In an excerpt of Dickinson’s poem “The Bee,” we see her careful observation of nature (note: chivalry—courageous, helpful; shod—fit with a shoe; onyx—stone of different colors; chrysoprase is an apple-green to dark-green colored gem):

His feet are shod with gauze,
His helmet is of gold;
His breast, a single onyx With chrysoprase, inlaid.
His labor is a chant,
His idleness a tune;
Oh, for a bee’s experience
Of clovers and of noon!

Dickinson aptly describes the texture, color, shape, and sounds of bees. Students then evaluate these observations against what they are learning as they examine the anatomy and details of various bees. With carefully chosen anchor texts and accompanying resources and scaffolds, learners with diverse interests and skills are able to read complex texts and engage with content for deeper understanding. The use of varied literature—poetry, short stories, novels, and other literary texts—engages students who may find literature a more welcoming path to science.

Literature and literary texts help us connect with humanity. By reading narratives, poems, and memoirs, students gain a deeper understanding of the relevance of scientific phenomena. A novel, memoir, essay, or short story can provide students with new perspectives. In text-based experiences, students record their own observations of what they are reading, write their evaluations, and practice how to communicate by drawing on a wealth of language and literature, knowledge, and vocabulary. Through multimodal text sets, literature can engage all learners in doing science.


Linking Science and Literacy for All Learners program

Online Supplemental Materials

Rolling journals activity

Rubric for journals


We thank members of the Linking Science and Literacy for All Learners team. We acknowledge financial support by NIH/SEPA award #8R25GM129228 and the University of Missouri. This publication is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the NIH or the University of Missouri.

Amy Lannin ( is the director of the Campus Writing Program and associate professor in the Department of Learning, Teaching & Curriculum; Rachel Juergensen is a doctoral student in the Department of Special Education; Cassandra Smith is a doctoral student in the Department of Special Education; Heba Abdelnaby is a doctoral student in the Department of Special Education; Delinda van Garderen is a professor in the Department of Special Education; and William Folk is a professor in the Department of Biochemistry, all at the University of Missouri in Columbia. Torrey Palmer is project director at TNTP in Reno, Nevada. Lori Pinkston is a secondary ELA teacher in Kirksville, Missouri.


Amendum S. J., Conradi K., and Hiebert E.. 2018. Does text complexity matter in the elementary grades? A research synthesis of text difficulty and elementary students’ reading fluency and comprehension. Educational Psychology Review 30 (1): 121–151.

American Academy of Pediatrics. 2018. Wethers Doris L., MD, interviewed by Dancis Joseph, MD. American Academy of Pediatrics Oral History Project, February 26, 2002.

Council of Chief State School Officers. 2017. Supplemental information for Appendix A of the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy: New research on text complexity. Washington, DC: Council of Chief State School Officers, National Governors Association.

Dickinson E. 2000. The complete poems of Emily Dickinson. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1924.

Doolittle H. (1915). Heat.

Grey R. (2015). Flowers are calling. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

House S., and Vaswani N.. 2012. Same sun here. New York, NY: Candlewick Press.

Juergensen R., Romine W., van Garderen D., and Folk W.. 2020. Linking science and literacy with multimodal text sets to support diverse learners. Paper prepared for the NARST 2020 International Conference, but the conference was canceled due to COVID-19. It will be presented at the 2021 Conference in Chicago.

McGinnis P. 2020. Scientific literacy in the post-truth era. Science Scope 43 (5): 1.

Mesmer H.A., Cunningham J.W., and Hiebert E.H.. 2012. Toward a theoretical model of text complexity for the early grades: Learning from the past, anticipating the future. Reading Research Quarterly 47 (3): 235–258.

Miller-Struttmann N.E., Heise D., Schul J., Geib J.C., and Galen C.. 2017. Flight of the bumble bee: Buzzes predict pollination services. PloS One 12 (6): e0179273.

Murty S. 2006. The old man and his God: Discovering the spirit of India. New York, NY: Penguin.

National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and Council of Chief State School Officers (NGAC and CCSSO). 2010. Common core state standards. Washington, DC: NGAC and CCSSO.

Norris S. P., and Phillips L.M.. 2003. How literacy in its fundamental sense is central to scientific literacy. Science Education 87 (2): 224–240.

Rhodes H., and Feder M.. 2014. Literacy for science: Exploring the intersection of the Next Generation Science Standards and Common Core for ELA Standards: A workshop summary. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Rimsky-Korsakov N. 2004. Flight of the bumblebee: From the tale of Tsar Saltan. Boca Raton, FL: Masters Music Publications.

Schoenbach R., Greenleaf C., and Murphy L.. 2012. Reading for understanding: How reading apprenticeship improves disciplinary learning in secondary and college classrooms. 2nd ed. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Steinweb C., and Gutowski W.J.Jr.. 2015. Projected changes in greater St. Louis summer heat stress in NARCCAP simulations. American Meteorological Society 7(2): 159–168.

Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. 2013. Guide to creating text sets for grades 2–12.

Linking Science and Literacy for All Learners program

Rolling journals activity

Rubric for journals

Equity Inclusion Instructional Materials Literacy Teaching Strategies Middle School

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