Think about that student in your class who is fascinated by and seems to know everything about dinosaurs. How did he/she become a mini-expert? How did he/she learn their long, complex scientific names and other key vocabulary terms? How does he/she keep track of when and where they lived, what they ate, and all their unique body features? In other words, how did that child build his/her content knowledge?
Chances are it wasn’t by reading a textbook cover to cover. The child most likely built knowledge over time by interacting with the information in a variety of ways—viewing dinosaur videos, studying and drawing pictures of dinosaurs, talking incessantly about dinosaurs to anyone who would listen. And, undoubtedly, by reading dozens of dinosaur-themed expository nonfiction children’s book
Finely-crafted children’s books with an expository writing style can enrich content-area learning by motivating and engaging a broad range of students. They feature rich, precise language, high-quality visuals, and dynamic design that introduce and reinforce ideas and information in a clear, lively, age appropriate way.
By delighting as well as informing, they prepare students for later encounters with textbooks and other educational materials with terse, lifeless text. These books also assist students in learning technical and specialized vocabulary in an authentic and inviting context—and that sure beats looking up the definitions!
While many teachers currently use expository nonfiction children’s books at the beginning of lessons, they also work well as a central component of the instruction, especially for teaching life science. There are three reasons:
—There are many excellent expository children’s books about life science concepts. They can bring the world of plants, animals, ecosystems, and natural processes to life for children.
—Hands-on lessons that involve direct observations and firsthand experience of life science concepts often aren’t feasible, effective, safe, or environmentally sound.
—As children read, they can extract key details from the text and organize this “data” in tables, charts, diagrams, and other visual representations. This process provides an authentic way of practicing a skill that’s critical in both ELA and science.
Because science instruction requires teaching skills as well as ideas and information, it’s important to realize that most children can’t build a solid understanding of key science concepts simply by reading a book. They need more support. Students learn best by participating in a broad range of experiences that introduce and reinforce scientific ideas. And so the most successful science lessons involve pairing high quality children’s books with authentic, engaging minds-on activities and investigations.
Some elementary teachers feel confident developing these kinds of lessons, but if you’d like some guidance, you may want to take a look at Perfect Pairs: Using Fiction and Nonfiction Picture Books to Teach Life Science, K-2 and Perfect Pairs: Using Fiction and Nonfiction Picture Books to Teach Life Science, Grades 3-5, which I co-wrote with veteran educator Nancy Chelsey. These books offer dozens of lessons that align with the Common Core ELA standards as well as the Next Generation Science Standards.