Linking Reading, Science, and Fiction Books

Linking Reading, Science, and Fiction Books

Fleener, Charlene E

Children’s literature holds a distinct place in elementary classrooms as a tool for instruction (Galda & Cullinan, 2002). In fact, literature may be used in all curriculum areas to nurture children’s desire to know and learn (Johnson & Giorgis, 2001). Many high-quality books are published each year and are eagerly welcomed by educators who are searching for logical and attainable ways to address national and state standards as well as their individual school’s curriculum, and to provide instruction that is sensitive to their students’ various learning styles and abilities.

While formalized expectations for excellence and the curriculum appear to expand annually, the number of hours in the school day remains inflexible. Thus, teachers must make the best use of that time. One way of dealing with this dilemma is through content integration. In this way, educators may focus on reading across the curriculum and may explore ways to use quality children’s literature to supplement traditional textbooks.

With an integrated language arts/reading program, reading and writing can be used as authentic activities and can be incorporated into content areas such as science. In the elementary science classroom, students can use literature to verify predictions, confront and correct their misconceptions about science (Miller, Steiner, & Larson, 1996), and make inferences. Going beyond memorization and acquisition of factual information, today’s science curriculum includes a heavy emphasis upon understanding and applying scientific processes. These higher level thinking practices are similar to those used by elementary teachers when they use good literature for reading instruction (Staton & McCarthy, 1994).

To understand how this literature/science integration can work, educators need to examine the connection between children’s literature and reading, explore the research-based rationale for using this literature to teach science, identify strategies for using fiction with science, identify ways to evaluate and select children’s literature for science, and stay informed about books to use with science instruction, as well as resources to consult for science/literature teaching ideas. Throughout this article, the term trade book is used to distinguish children’s literature from textbooks.

What Is the Connection Between Children’s Literature and Reading?

To make the most of children’s literature, children must be able to not only read the words, but also understand the concepts, feelings, and emotions presented in the text and relate them to their own emotions and experiences, their developmental levels, and their literary preferences (Goforth, 1998). Thus, children must be able to understand what they read-emotionally, psychologically, and intellectually.

Commonly associated with fictional literature or well-told stories, the aesthetic stance (Rosenblatt, 1978)-or reading for feelings, emotions, or experiences-is no less important to learning through reading than is an information gathering, or an efferent, stance. “In the ‘story genres’ such as fantasy, mystery, historical fiction, and realistic fiction, there are the common elements with which children are familiar, as they have been ‘marinated’ in the story form at least since the start of school” (Tower, 2000, p. 550). Thus, literature written in narrative style provides familiarity for linking personal experiences and feelings with factual information and new concepts found in exposition.

Why Should Teachers Use Children’s Fictional Literature in the Science Classroom?

Tribble and Tribble (1995) maintain that educators can capitalize on the preferences of younger children (ages 4-8) to learn science through stories rather than through factual accounts. The element of story may provide experiential connections and relevance, with the additional benefits of including a familiar framework and the natural language form associated with narratives (Jan, 1993). Thus, a strong case can be made for the use of children’s fiction books, or the story genres, in the science classroom.

In addition, as the emphasis on integrated language arts and reading across the curriculum has grown, educators have realized the need to develop lessons that illustrate that the major disciplines share many concepts, strategies, and skills that are truly linked. This realization should, in turn, increase the relevancy of learning experiences for students (Jacobs, 1989).

While fiction books often are used in the language arts curriculum to develop social decision-making skills or higher level thinking skills, the same process can be applied in science to achieve curricular goals. As Wood, Flood, and Lapp (1994) point out, literature “provides for a richer, more meaningful understanding of subject matter, and it provides a relevant way to introduce students to the pleasures and rewards of reading” (p. 67). Reading, like most skills, improves with practice, and so it should not be limited to language arts, English, or reading classes.

In the science classroom, children’s books can build upon a number of science concepts. They can help students develop the skills of observing, predicting, and hypothesizing by introducing the scientific method, transmitting scientific knowledge, and providing an opportunity for students to “experience the excitement of discovery” (Royce & Wiley, 1996, p. 18). In addition, they “can help explain abstract science principles and confusing textbook explanations, develop thinking skills, and enhance student self-esteem and social skills” (Kralina, 1993, p. 33).

Royce and Wiley (1996) stress that science teachers need to focus on both efferent and aesthetic reading. By recognizing the emotional as well as content aspects in learning, teachers recognize that the inquiry, exploration, and “how” of science is as necessary to science instruction as is the acquisition of facts and knowledge. Donovan and Smolkin (2001) refer to the “how” of science as the Nature of Science (NOS), a matter of concern and emphasis to science educators. They further cite research by McComas that showed more than half of the American public has little or no understanding of how science really works. This lack of understanding is partly attributed to the fact that teaching and textbooks have been almost entirely dedicated to factual information recall.

Several researchers have documented the benefits of a science/literature combination. In a study of literature use in 3rd-grade science instruction, Morrow, Pressley, Smith, and Smith (1997) found that students exposed to an integrated science/literature approach “scored significantly higher statistically on all literacy measures” and had “higher scores on two of the three science measures” (p. 72). These researchers also found that students in the literature/science classroom read more science trade books on their own and that a majority of these students said they liked science. These findings were in direct contrast to the students in both the control and the literature-only groups, who found science boring.

In a science program designed for youth considered tobe at risk, Baird and Dixey (1997) found that children’s books could put students of different ability levels on an equal level. Using the picture book Animalia (Base, 1996) as a source of science information for a middle-level summer science program, Baird and Dixey employed the Teach-Practice-Apply (TPA) method in cooperative learning activities. It was apparent to the researchers that the reading strategies of making predictions, using prior knowledge, organizing ideas, and discovering connections were transferable to science.

Testing a program called WEE (Wondering, Exploring, and Explaining) Science, Anderson, West, Beck, MacDonell, and Frisbie (1997) explored ways to eliminate persistent problems, because “neither ‘canned activities’ nor textbook presentations of science concepts, ideas, facts and data necessarily ‘connect’ to the students’ world” (p. 731). In the study, 5th-grade students selected science trade books to read and then engaged in “minds-on” science activities. The researchers were impressed with the results, including “the excitement that students showed in choosing and reading their trade books” and the “amount and type of science ideas that students reported learning” (p. 731).

While many researchers have pointed out the benefits of using children’s literature in the science classroom, other educators express concern about the use of anthropomorphic tales in the science classroom (Lutts, 1990). Although the “nature faker” controversy (which concerns the imposition of human values and control on animals and the portrayal of animals as readers would like them to be, not as they really are) began many years ago, it is still a major concern. One need look no further to find examples than the anthropomorphism found in many Walt Disney films and associated trade books.

However, not all anthropomorphism is bad (Myers, 1995; Raymo, 1992; Tribble & Tribble, 1995). Myers (1995) points out that children’s books that give human attributes to nature and/or animals are popular with children and are an excellent way for them to gain further understanding of science. “Books help children gain knowledge, poetry, and meaning. And they need only go outside to hear the animals speak for themselves” (Myers, 1995, p. 560). As long as the story portrays plants and animals accurately (Tribble & Tribble, 1995) and presents information in a manner that stimulates the curiosity of the reader (Raymo, 1992), anthropomorphic tales are fine. There is nothing wrong with stories that, for literary purposes, turn animals into human surrogates, because the ultimate value of these books lies in helping children understand science and nature (Myers, 1995).

How Should Teachers Use Fiction Books in the Science Classroom?

Teachers can use fiction books alone or pair them with appropriate nonfiction selections to introduce, develop, and extend science concepts. Although reading across the curriculum or content area strategies most often are associated with nonfiction materials and secondary schools, they also are appropriate for elementary content learning and for use with fictional materials. An instructional framework that uses before-, during-, and after-reading strategies provides a structure that teachers can follow to develop unit and lesson plans and to meet both science and reading/language arts objectives. One such framework is PAR (Preparation, Assistance, and Reflection), proposed by Richardson and Morgan (2003). Although strategies for each stage are usually designed and designated for nonfiction materials, many strategies work for fiction as well and can provide a needed bridge between the two.

During the first stage of the PAR framework, the preparation stage, teachers employ strategies to help students uncover their own prior and existing knowledge on a given topic, as well as to pique students’ interest and set purposes for the reading. For example, anticipation or reaction guides (Herber, 1978) help students engage in pre-reading as well as post-reading interactions with the text. The teacher prepares a set of statements to which students must agree/disagree or determine to be true/false prior to and following the reading. The students are allowed space to make two separate responses (see Figure 1). Besides provoking topic-related thought and questions, anticipation guides help readers establish a purpose as they read the passage. Thus, these guides can help readers make connections between a fictional narrative and related scientific concepts. In particular, they offer opportunities for calling into question any scientific misconceptions that students may have. Teachers can construct some statements on the guide that promote critical thinking by asking students to make inferences and draw conclusions, based upon information found in the text.

Four Square (Lenski, Wham, & Johns, 1999) is a prereading vocabulary strategy that not only helps teachers determine how much students may know about a topic, but also gives students a chance to make a personal connection to that vocabulary. That personal connection assists in retention and understanding. Students may be given a handout divided into four squares, or they can make their own by folding a piece of paper in half and then in half once again. In the top left square, the student writes the word that is being studied. The top right square provides space for the student to write a personal connection to that word. After writing a brief definition in the bottom left square, the student writes a word with the opposite meaning in the bottom right square (see Figure 2).

Before students work on this activity independently, the teacher should carefully model or demonstrate the strategy, using the board, overhead, or a computer. First, the teacher asks a volunteer to pronounce the word. Then, all of the students think about a word or phrase association that the target word brings to mind for them. (Pictures will help younger children and visual learners. ) Next, students offer a definition for the word and the teacher records a collaboratively created definition in the definition square. Finally, students think of a word (or words) that could be considered to have a meaning opposite of the targeted word, and they place the word in the opposites square. Following the demonstration, students can work independently or in small groups to complete similar Four Square graphics for words from the book that are important to the science content. When the students are finished, the teacher can discuss each word and provide clarification, if needed. This practice helps focus and prepare students for the next stage of PAR, the “during” or “assistance” stage.

Teachers can use other strategies in the assistance stage to help students with vocabulary and comprehension during the reading. Students’ comprehension and understanding may be enhanced when they are actively participating in thinking and making sense of the text, instead of passively reading through a selection. This can be done very simply through the use of sticky notes (such as Post-it notes). Often, the reading material is not the personal property of the student, so he or she may not write in the text. By using sticky notes, students can make comments, jot down questions, or affirm their understanding during the reading. A teacher can distribute four or five sticky notes to each student prior to the reading and encourage students to be selective, thoughtful, and purposeful as they write and place their notes in the text. Again, teachers need to explicitly model the use of the notes before expecting students to use them independently.

Another assistance strategy is the graphic organizer (see Figure 3). A teacher may give students a partially completed organizer that appropriately reflects the organization of the text. As they read, the students can fill in the missing components. This strategy provides a way for students to attend and respond to the text as they are reading and, when completed, visually demonstrates the organization of the text, using key points of information. To help students begin to see differences in the ways fiction and nonfiction texts are structured, a teacher can pair a narrative like Twister on Tuesday (Osborne, 2001) with Do Tornadoes Really Twist? (Berger & Berger, 2000), a non-narrative informational text, and use a graphic organizer to explore the differences and similarities. Graphic organizers lend the element of visual representation, which may assist students in remembering and understanding differences as well as the structure and important details in the content.

Finally, in the reflection stage, teachers use strategies to help students make connections and applications beyond the text, and thus broaden and extend understanding. Writing strategies are very appropriate for the reflection stage of PAR because writing allows students to think on paper in a variety of formats. One creative strategy, RAFT (Buehl, 2001; Johns & Berglund, 2002), lets students choose roles from which to write, and suggests a proposed audience, a format to use, and a topic. The Disappearing Island (Demas, 2000), with its strikingly gentle yet realistic illustrations, provides a pensive venue from which the reader can imagine what life might have been like on a once-inhabited island. The book introduces several relics and forms of plant and animal life as Carrie and her Grandma explore the island. These subjects provide an excellent beginning point for RAFT. Students might choose to take on animate or inanimate roles such as that of Carrie, Grandma, a cormorant, a whelk, or even a lighthouse. An appropriate piece of writing then could be created to address a particular audience, format, and topic (see Figure 4). Such a task requires students to not only understand the scientific concepts involved but also consider connections and perspectives beyond the page.

Confirming K-W-L, which is a new adaptation of K-W-L (Know, Want to Know, Learned) created by MaryBeth Sampson (2002), offers interesting opportunities for each stage of PAR. The first column of the Confirming K-W-L chart is for recording what students think they know, rather than what they know. Sometimes what we know may not be accurate. Following the first column are two new columns-one column for recording confirmation of the facts, and yet another column for recording the source of information. The W column remains the area for brainstorming and recording questions that students would like to see answered in the text. Finally, the L column is for information learned, and it is again followed by a source column. The final source column might even be followed by a U column for recording how the information may be used. The Confirming K-W-L may really help students consider what they think they know, come to terms with misconceptions, and make better connections and accurate applications.

By using these and similar strategies, by providing explicit explanations, and by modeling the appropriate use of these strategies, teachers can help students see clear connections between science learning and literacy learning. As a result, students should learn to make and confirm predictions as well as make inferences based upon findings. Common reading strategies that have direct connections to steps of the scientific method include hypothesizing, testing, collecting and analyzing data, and reviewing the findings. By helping students understand those connections, teachers may help them recognize generally good learning practices used by effective learners.

How Should Teachers Select Literature To Use With Science?

With over 5,000 new children’s trade books published each year, educators need to carefully select the books to be used with the science curriculum. Although many excellent books exist, others may not be appropriate for children and do not belong in the science curriculum. Thankfully, educators can use a variety of resources to help them identify good science trade books.

Each year, for example, the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) and the Children’s Book Council collaborate to issue a list of the “Outstanding Science Trade Books for Children.” Chosen by scientists, science educators, and librarians, this list of books for students in grades kindergarten to 8 represents the best in both content and method of presentation. In addition to appearing each year in the March issue of Science and Children, the list is available on the NSTA Web site at

Several professional journals also extensively review children’s books, and others often include articles on trade books in the science classroom. An example of the latter type is Science and Children, published by NSTA. Book Links, published by the American Library Association, is devoted to information on children’s books, authors/illustrators, and curriculum connections, with most issues containing at least one article on books for the science classroom. Reviews from a variety of sources can be found in a commercial database such as Books in Print With Reviews, or at such online bookstores as Amazon ( or Barnes and Noble ( The concept/title map in Figure 5 shows a few of the recommended fiction titles found from these sources that could be used to teach the National Science Content Strand IV: Life Science.

In addition to using awards, “best books” lists, and journal reviews to make preliminary selections, educators need to read and review the materials that they plan to use in their classrooms. When evaluating fiction books for the science classroom, teachers should keep the following principles in mind:

* The science concepts in the text should be recognizable and valid

* The book should promote a positive attitude toward science

* The text should encourage scientific thinking and stimulate the reader’s curiosity

* The details should keep the reader’s interest

* The illustrations should be accurate and detailed

* The book should avoid oversimplifying scientific content and avoid presenting inaccurate information

* The difference between fact, opinion, theory, and fiction should be apparent

* Action devices such as pop-ups, slide-outs, and pullouts can be very effective, but can shorten the classroom life of any book

* If fictionalized anthropomorphic stories are used, they should be as realistic as possible and present a non-romanticized look at science

* The book should encourage students to think, posing questions and including activities that require recall, analysis, and synthesis (many mystery stories contain these elements).

Additional guidelines for selecting science trade books can be found in Mayer’s (1995) checklist and the NSTA’s annual information on outstanding science tradebooks.

The school’s library media specialist (SLMS) is an invaluable resource to consult when selecting trade books for classroom use. An SLMS is trained in book selection and is knowledgeable about recent children’s literature, and is often willing to do book talks for students and to suggest resources for lesson planning. If an educator has identified trade books to use in the curriculum, most specialists will be glad to order the titles for the school library collection.

Many excellent professional resources include ideas for incorporating literature into the science curriculum. These include articles such as:

* “Searching the Heavens With Children’s Literature: A Design for Teaching Science” (Kaser, 2001)

* “Making the Connection! Science & Literacy” (Barclay, Benelli, & Schoon, 1999)

* “Rejuvenate Math and Science-Revisit Children’s Literature” (Benson & Downings, 1999)

* “Children’s Literature and Environmental Issues” (Monhardt & Monhardt, 2000)

* “This Science Is Sound” (Wheatley & Wheatley, 1996)

* “A Read-aloud for Science Classrooms” (Richardson, 1994)

* “Nature, Literature and Young Children” (Kupetz & Twiest, 2000)

* “From the Rainbow Crow to Polar Bears: Introducing Science Concepts Through Children’s Literature” (Burns, 1997).

In addition, several authors, such as Butzow and Butzow (1994, 1998, 2000), Cerullo (1997), Fredericks (2001), Gertz, Portman, and Sarquis (1996), Glandon (2000), Lake (1993), Letwinch (1999), and Perry (1997), have published resource books of teaching ideas. Contained in these and other professional resources are a wide range of ideas for integrating trade books into a variety of science units.


Children’s literature can be an excellent resource for science teachers. With the careful selection of children’s literature and the thoughtful planning of instruction to integrate that literature into the science curriculum, educators can provide students with meaningful, interesting, integrated learning experiences that yield a deeper understanding of scientific concepts and principles than can be gained from the use of textbooks alone. In addition, educators can use fiction books with a PAR (Preparation, Assistance, and Reflection) reading framework to help students make connections between the fiction tradebooks and the discipline of science, while they also sharpen and enhance their reading skills. With a knowledge of the professional resources available to assist them, educators should be able to select quality literature that will meet their instructional goals.


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Charlene E. Fleener and Katherine T. Bucher

Charlene E. Fleener is Assistant Professor and Katherine T. Bucher is Professor, Department of Curriculum and Instruction, Old Dominion University, Norfolk, Virginia.

Copyright Association for Childhood Education International Winter 2003/2004

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