Journal of Science Teacher Education

, Volume 25, Issue 4, pp 395–412 | Cite as

Reading Scientifically: Practices Supporting Intertextual Reading Using Science Knowledge



This paper reports on a study of teachers’ actions when reading informational and narrative texts in the context of elementary science learning experiences. Focusing on the development of fundamental and derived senses of science literacy through the integrated science lessons, the research further explores the affordances of different genres of text in science learning. The findings highlight that teacher actions can support students engaging in inquiry provoked during reading events. However, this was not easy to do and required more than providing students with opportunities to discuss and share their questions. Furthermore, the study revealed that purposes for reading and the notion of making predictions were contextualized activities that impact the nature of students’ engagement with texts. Based on these findings it is possible to make inferences that raise questions for future research. The construct of fundamental and derived senses of science literacy revealed that most of the actions of teachers focused on fundamental senses. Yet, there were moments of derived senses of science literacy that offer glimpses of the usefulness of this construct for supporting integrated learning. Thus the outcome is to consider this framework when developing integrated learning experiences in science.


Language and literacy Reading Teacher actions Integration Science literacy Texts 


Science educators have made efforts to integrate science and literacy learning. Efforts involve creating a science education culture that “places strategic language activity, critical thought, and social relevance at the core of science learning (Yore et al. 2004, p. 347).” This presents a special challenge for elementary teachers who face multiple curricular demands for student performance (Mathison and Freeman 2003). In elementary schools, the multiple curricular demands lead to greater focus on what Yore et al. (2004) refer to as fundamental science literacy, with less emphasis on derived science literacy. The distinction considers how fundamental knowledge and skill involves learning to read, write, and speak scientifically, while derived knowledge and skill involves understanding the nature, processes, and dispositions of scientific activity. The emphasis on fundamental science literacy, as well as continued effort to integrate science and literacy, is seen in prior research (e.g. Ford et al. 1997; Ford 2004; Hapgood et al. 2004; Magnusson and Palincsar 2004; Pappas et al. 2004). This article adds to this research by considering teachers’ actions when reading different genres of texts connected to planned science learning experiences. In particular, this article considers how teachers’ actions afford opportunities to develop both fundamental and derived science literacies.

While research on integrating science and literacy is limited but growing, there is agreement that integration benefits both science and literacy learning (Cervetti et al. 2006). Research on science-literacy integration primarily focuses on uses of informational texts in science learning (briefly reviewed below) and how scientific knowledge can be learned through literacy processes. This article extends on prior research (Enfield 2007), which investigated student-generated inquiry contextualized in reading events. This study examines teacher actions when integrating multiple text genres into science learning experiences. The research asks: How do teachers’ attempts to share authority and use engagement and comprehension strategies support, encourage, and/or provoke student questioning during read-aloud events of narrative and informational texts?

Given that this study considers the affordances of different text genres in integrated science-literacy learning, it is important to operationalize the meaning of the term text. This study defines a text as any symbolic representation of meaning (Wells and Chang-Wells 1992). Informational Texts are a genre of expository text that communicates information to the reader. Informational texts in this study include trade books used in elementary classrooms. Narrative Texts relay a story following a narrative arch and include: characters, a context, a sequence of events, a conflict, and a conclusion. Within this study the narrative texts were picture books, which are illustrated, brief forms of narratives commonly read to young children. In this article, texts will refer to all texts; informational texts and narrative texts will be distinguished.

While this is not a new topic, research has yet to fully explore uses of informational texts in elementary teaching. A bellwether in this line of inquiry was Duke’s (2000) finding that elementary teachers infrequently used informational texts. As a result students lacked familiarity with the genre and struggled to learn from these texts (Duke 2000). Reading informational texts in elementary science learning has shown to provide students experiences with the language scientists use, provide prototypical experiences with experiences of science, model for children how scientists build theory from data, and serve as tools in inquiry to facilitate students’ sense-making (Pappas et al. 2004). Additionally, uses of informational texts can support development of conceptual understandings as well as understandings of the nature of science (Girod and Twyman 2009; Smolkin and Donovan 2001). However, research has shown limitations and challenges of using narratives and hybrid genres in science learning (Smolkin and Donovan 2001). But, we need richer understandings of how teachers’ actions affect students’ experiences with different text genres.

Only a few studies have considered teachers’ actions when integrating science and literacy and these primarily focus on uses of informational texts (Donovan and Smolkin 2001; Ford 2004). Research showed how teachers’ assumptions about informational texts effect their selection of texts for use in science learning experiences. Teachers tend to choose texts to integrate based on assumptions that students feel science is boring. These assumptions effect not only teachers’ selection of texts, but also how they read those texts (Donovan and Smolkin 2001). Unfortunately, such teacher actions are contrary to the compelling evidence that students are interested in and motivated to read both informational and narrative texts (Oyler 1996; Smolkin and Donovan 2001; Varelas and Pappas 2006).

Teachers can support students’ engagement with texts to facilitate cogenerated inquiry and development of scientific understandings (Pappas et al. 2004; Varelas et al. 2006). Recommendations to facilitate engagement include having teachers share authority with students (Oyler 1996) and encouraging students to make intertextual connections with the texts being read (Pappas et al. 2004; Varelas and Pappas 2006; Varelas et al. 2006, 2008). Oyler (1996) describes sharing authority as giving students opportunities to share ideas and experiences and encourage students to direct discussions. Sharing authority provides teachers insights into the child’s thinking, reasoning, and understandings of phenomena. A teacher who shares authority and engages students’ textualized experiences facilitates students making connections to personal experiences resulting in greater comprehension (fundamental science literacy) as well as developing modes of engagement with texts to make intertextual connections and construct meaning (derived science literacy).

The best example of teacher engagement with students’ textualized experiences comes in research describing how discussions about informational texts provide opportunities for teachers and students to engage in dialogic inquiry (Pappas et al. 2004). Varelas and Pappas (2006) explain that intertextuality and dialogic inquiry facilitates making meaning from texts through collaborative discussion to explore, wonder, and ultimately explain phenomena. Research finds that science and literacy learning can benefit from engagement with texts using participants’ collective body of knowledge and experiences to examine, question, and wonder about the claims, events, or ideas presented in texts; in essence a critical literacy which has shown to be useful in both improving comprehension as well as science learning (Cervetti et al. 2006). Dialogic inquiry is distinct from student-generated, first-hand inquiry (Hapgood et al. 2004; Magnusson and Palincsar 2004) in which students collect data and interpret that data to understand phenomena. It is interesting to wonder whether intertextuality and dialogic inquiry might be useful constructs in using texts to provoke student questioning that might lead to student-generated, first-hand inquiry.

Theoretical Framework

This study considers learning a result of activity situated in social contexts in which participants collaborate to communally validate meaningful questions and inquiries (Lave and Wenger 1991). Collaborative discussions rely on dialogic interactions that define meanings and participants in relation to one another (Bakhtin 1986). Robertson (2007) shows how through collaborative activity individuals interpret the world through individual perspectives while also helping construct a group’s ‘societal’ truth. Groups collaboratively define contexts and explanations that are meaningful, and the nature of questions and evidence seen as relevant and useful. This situated perspective has many benefits for teaching and learning. For example, De Lisi and Golbeck (1999) explain that interactions through collaboration produces higher levels of reasoning while also developing interpersonal competence. Furthermore, as Olitsky (2007) describes, not only does consideration of social context contribute to student learning, it also helps build interest in the topic.

One perspective on how groups collaborate is explained by considering how individuals’ actions are impacted by institutional, cultural and historic knowledge and tools embedded in personal repertoires; referred to as mediational means (Cobb and Bowers 1999; Wertsch et al. 1995). Mediational means can include: subject matter knowledge, strategies for making sense of texts and experiences in the world, and skills to comprehend textual representations of concepts, ideas, and phenomena. Teachers, with more robust and complex mediational means, mediate students’ institutional, cultural, and historic knowledge as well as participation in contexts. Meditation enables teachers to support students’ making ideas explicit which sets a stage for identifying and challenging conceptual discrepancies (King 1999). This thinking reflects the effort to help learners navigate between how they know about the world and how members of a disciplinary community know about the world (Varelas et al. 2008).

Texts can become artifacts in and products of the situated context. Engagement with texts, whether physical or through collective discourse, supports development of intrapersonal mental functioning. This facilitates epistemic engagement as well as social action (Wells and Chang-Wells 1992). Such an approach is theoretically grounded in the notion that individuals textualize their experiences in the world and that juxtaposition of multiple texts about the world facilitates understanding (Bloome and Egan-Robertson 1993). Epistemic engagement with texts has been shown to promote meaning making as well as understandings of the epistemic practices of science (Varelas et al. 2006).

Lave and Wenger (1991) theorize that situated contexts engage participants in resolving implicit or explicit dilemmas. Dilemmas require that participants negotiate shared, collective understandings. In practice this means that teachers and students share responsibility to resolve dilemmas that arise either within or around an idea in a text. This kind of critical engagement (Cervetti et al. 2006; Yore et al. 2004) with texts replicates inquiry processes, including identification of problems/questions and then defining procedures to answer those questions. Critical engagement begins with identification of problems; be those problems based on explaining observations of phenomena or problems with phenomena represented in texts. Focusing on dilemmas promotes interaction between texts and first-hand investigations, which has many benefits for learning (Magnusson and Palincsar 2004; Palincsar and Herrenkohl 1999; Saul et al. 2002).

Design and Procedures

Data for this study were collected using purposive sampling (Patton 1990). Data were collected in two classrooms in a neighborhood elementary school in a large, diverse district. Knowledge of the school and school leadership through established partnerships with the university teacher education program facilitated selection of the school. The school in this study was a diverse school that had struggled to meet state assessment standards for adequate yearly progress (AYP) under No Child Left Behind. During the academic year in which data were collected the school met AYP. Having struggled to meet AYP and then having met AYP reflects that this school represented an average school in the district.

The classrooms were a first and a second grade classroom. Lower elementary classrooms were selected for several reasons. First, Duke’s (2000) study focused on lower elementary classrooms’ uses of informational texts. Based on those findings, this study sought to explore how teachers in lower elementary classrooms used texts paired with science units. Second, there is a tendency for teachers to avoid reading informational texts aloud (Donovan and Smolkin 2001). Since reading books aloud is more common in lower elementary classrooms, this made lower elementary classrooms ideal contexts. Finally, students are just developing proficiencies with texts in these grades; this makes their responses to teachers’ provocations interesting in terms of children learning about modes of engagement with texts. Each classroom had less than 25 students. The students were predominantly minorities from low-income families. Yet, both classrooms were well equipped with materials, books, and supplies.

Since the study was designed to examine teacher action to facilitate student discourse, identifying teachers who engaged students in whole group discussions of texts was a priority. Additionally the study was designed to connect reading events with science instruction; therefore it was necessary to identify lower elementary teachers who taught science regularly. Moreover, selected teachers would ideally engage students in inquiry based, hands-on science lessons. Based on anecdotal knowledge of teacher practices, the researcher invited teachers based on the teacher’s pedagogical approaches and the teacher’s willingness to participate. Invited teachers relied on limited whole group, teacher-directed instruction and limited use of textbook-based curriculum. In both classrooms, students had experience talking about ideas during teacher directed discussions. Both teachers were young (new teachers within the last 5 years), but experienced and evaluated as being exceptional by the principal and assistant principal.

The study was designed to be a naturalistic study in which there was no specific intervention. Teachers were asked to pair narrative and informational texts with their science units. The researcher offered support to teachers to identify potential trade books that would include concepts found in their science units. The teachers asked for clarification on how a trade book reading could be paired with their science lessons. Therefore, the researcher taught a demonstration lesson in one classroom with an informational text that connected with the current science unit. The lesson modeled connecting personal experiences with information in the text. This strategy of making connections was one the researcher had seen the teacher use in her own lessons. Therefore, the demonstration served to illustrate how teachers could rely on their existing practices and to reinforce that the focus of the study was on making deliberate text choices correlated with science units. No formal training occurred, the only training or professional development for teachers consisted of informal discussions after lessons and provision of lists of potential books.

The unit of analysis was whole-group video recorded lessons. The recorded lessons focused on reading events including pre-reading activities, reading of texts, and follow-up discussion that occurred in conjunction with readings. Videos were catalogued and annotated to identify broad patterns such as teacher directedness, genre of texts read, and general affect (e.g. amount of teacher versus student talk, students had multiple questions, students were talkative about the text, students were relatively silent, etc.) Videos were then encoded as digital files and coded using HyperResearch. Coding, based on grounded theory approaches (Glaser and Strauss 1967), began looking at turns and control of the floor (Edelsky 1993; Shultz et al. 1982). Once turns were identified, the nature of utterances were examined, this involved looking at syntactic and semantic meanings of utterances (Austin 1999; Bloom 2001; Gee and Green 1998; Hogan et al. 2000; Lemke 1989, 1990). For example, analysis examined whether the utterance was a teacher question, a student question, a teacher comment, a teacher reference to another experience, or a student connection to another experience. It was important to identify whether teachers’ and students’ questions were about phenomena, events, vocabulary, story elements, or character attributes. These codes were iteratively applied to all videos.


The findings describe what teachers did to impact science learning for students during reading events. Analysis considers how teachers’ actions created contexts that facilitated dialogic inquiry, supported students asking questions, and in one case let to first-hand inquiry with students. Within that framework it becomes possible to consider how teacher’s actions supported development of fundamental and derived science literacy. The following summaries describe larger patterns for each teacher/classroom.

First Grade: Forces and Motion

The first grade teacher taught a unit on force and motion. The district provided a science curriculum kit that supported learning to describe motion. The kit included a teacher guide and materials for first-hand investigations. The teacher, as part of this study, complemented the science curriculum with one informational and three narrative texts that included related concepts. For example, the teacher read How things move (Curry and Saunders-Smith 1999), an informational text, and Roller Coaster (Frazee 2003), a narrative text, in order to engage children in describing how forces affect motion. Reading texts in whole group settings was only part of the science instruction. The teacher engaged students in first-hand investigations and making observations of phenomena, writing in science journals, sharing observations as a class, and attempting to generate explanations of phenomena.

Based on anecdotal classroom observations prior to the study and from field notes during the study, there were some salient general attributes and pedagogical approaches used by the teacher during reading events. The teacher had strategies to develop children’s comprehension (observed 14 times), develop understandings of genre (observed twice), and support children in making connections between the text and themselves, the world or other texts (observed 12 times). The norms and routines of the class enable students to be effective communicators and participants in whole group discussions. The teacher had clear, consistent approaches to developing students’ comprehension and fluency. She also worked toward developing children’s ability to critique and to analyze knowledge claims (observed nine times).

Second Grade: Weather

The second grade teacher taught a weather unit. Similar to the first grade classroom, there was a kit of materials to support classroom investigations of weather related phenomena. The second grade teacher also complemented the science curriculum one informational and three narrative texts. She read books like, Down comes the rain (Branley and Hale 1997) an informational book written for children. She also read picture books like, Come on rain (Hesse and Muth 1999). This teacher used texts (both narrative and informational) to offer representations of phenomena that students could compare with first-hand observations. The second grade teacher was enthusiastic about hands-on investigations, having students make observations and attempting to make sense of their observations. She provided substantial scaffolding to support students collecting, analyzing and interpreting data to learn concepts of weather.

This teacher had many strategies that were useful for engaging children in making sense of texts and also developing understandings of genre (observed four times). The teacher explicitly asked students about the purposes of different genres of text in the context of reading events. The teacher also used strategies to support students’ comprehension of the text (observed 14 times). Clarifying students’ comprehension enabled the teacher to challenge students to be involved with and engage themselves in critical thinking about ideas presented in texts (observed 18 times). In particular, she asked students to use knowledge to critically analyze events in texts and to wonder whether the represented events made sense. The teacher encouraged students to write and use journals to support thinking and reasoning across the curriculum.

How Do Teachers’ Attempts to Share Authority as Well as Teachers’ Uses of Engagement and Comprehension Strategies, Support, Encourage, and/or Provoke Student Questioning During Read-Aloud Events of Narrative and Informational Texts?

Both teachers engaged in a variety of engagement and comprehension strategies when reading both informational and narrative texts. The teachers most frequently relied on comprehension strategies (74 of 93 teacher actions coded). They also engaged students using pre-reading strategies (16 of 93 teacher actions coded) that stimulated interest, raised questions, and helped students to engage in strategic reading during the read-aloud experience. Using these comprehension strategies allowed teachers to model reading strategies for children. Teachers’ comprehension strategies fit into three categories: pre-reading, comprehending reading, or examining texts as representations of events or phenomena.

However, a theoretical construct in this study focused on teachers’ uses of shared authority. Given that sharing authority constitutes a broader action, findings of instances that reflect shared authority will be presented first and then attention will turn to the aforementioned categories of teacher comprehension and pre-reading strategies. It is important to keep in mind that findings reported focus only on reading events. Yet, both teachers enacted a variety of other pedagogical strategies including but not limited to hands-on activities, discussions of observations and data, and writing in science journals.

Sharing Authority

Throughout the observed lessons, both teachers followed fairly teacher-directed approaches, which constrained how much they shared authority with students. For example, both teachers used pre-reading strategies (presented in greater detail below) in order to engage children with texts. This usually involved asking questions in an initiation-response-evaluation pattern (Mehan 1979) that limited students’ opportunities to extend on or direct the discussion. For the most part, teachers controlled and, to some extent, dominated the discussions providing students few chances to invest themselves or introduce their own ideas into the reading events. For example, before reading an informational text about rain, the teacher reminded students of an investigation the class was conducting about evaporation:
  • T: (Holding up a cup) Does this have anything to do with rain?

  • Ss: NO (chorally)

  • T: What about this is like rain?

  • S: The water

  • T: Right the water

This discussion continued a few more turns, with the teacher asking questions and students responding. This example is representative of teacher actions during pre-reading events. As a result the context offered limited opportunities for student generated inquiries about the ideas or phenomena in the pre-reading to establish a student-generated purpose for reading the text.
There were a few exceptions to this pattern of teacher control. Both teachers encouraged students to share ideas and personal experiences. One exception occurred when reading a picture book, Roller Coaster (Frazee 2003). Students had many personal experiences that they shared before, during, and after reading the book. At one point in the discussion, students made observations of represented phenomena:
  • T: Oh [student name] what a great thing you pointed out. What happened?

  • S1: The hat fell out.

  • T: Why do you think the hat fell out?

  • S1: Because the wind was blowing.

  • S2: Because the roller coaster was so fast and the hat got knocked off.

  • T: (continues reading)

In this case the teacher heard a comment about a relevant phenomenon and asked students to discuss this. However, the second student’s comments were passed over. Student 2 had an idea that was relevant to the science unit, but this was not acknowledged or taken up by the teacher. This teacher more often shared authority when she finished reading. For example, when the class finished reading Roller Coaster, the teacher used an “I wonder” strategy in which students took turns sharing their wonders about either events in the text or phenomena represented. However, the “I wonder” strategy remained teacher directed. The teacher controlled the floor and restated each student’s comment.

The second grade teacher made more attempts to share authority with students, but also maintained a teacher-directed discussion. The difference involved how she responded to students’ comments during discussions. The second grade teacher commonly asked questions in response to students’ initiations. For example, when reading Come on Rain (Hesse and Muth 1999), a student commented, ‘I tasted rain before and it tastes like my aunt’s pool water.’ In response, the teacher asked other students whether they had tasted rain and to describe the taste. Similarly, when reading the same picture book, another student worried about children slipping in the rain. The teacher asked him to explain why he thought this. In these examples, which occurred infrequently, students commented on phenomena represented in the text. Thus, the second grade teacher shared authority by discussing students’ reactions to texts. However, she ultimately retained authority and directed class discussions.

These observations represent the majority of instances when teachers attempted to share authority with students. The larger pattern was that teachers determined purposes for reading texts of either genre and had goals for students when reading. This is not surprising since sharing authority presents a practical dilemma for teachers. In each reading event in this data set students had comments, questions, or ideas (e.g. telling about times they rode roller coasters) that could potentially diverge from curricular goals. Thus, sharing authority with students has productive potential, but is also potentially problematic.


Both teachers used pre-reading strategies in every reading event. These pre-reading strategies primarily focused on activating prior knowledge (five of sixteen observations) and providing purposes for reading (five of sixteen observations). Teachers also had students look at the cover and shared their interest as pre-reading strategies, but these approaches occurred less frequently. While the teachers had different approaches to pre-reading, both made attempts, through pre-reading, to connect students’ first hand science investigations and experiences with ideas, concepts, or events represented in the texts. Thus, pre-reading provided opportunities to connect science learning with the reading event.

Both teachers activated prior knowledge, which most frequently involved either a discussion of the main science concepts students learned or a review of observations or findings from first-hand investigations. The teachers used students’ ideas to shape and focus discussions by asserting challenges like, ‘let’s see if the things we know are in this book’ or ‘let’s see if we can find out more by reading this book.’ Thus in each reading event, regardless of genre, the teachers highlighted science concepts and students’ experiences with those concepts prior to reading the text. One difference between the two teachers was that the first grade teacher made these connections much more explicit than the second grade teacher. For example, the first grade teacher led a discussion prior to reading Mirette on the high wire (McCully 1997).
  • T: I want to go back to what we started our week with. We were on the carpet and we stood up and we did some things. Before we even went to our seats and did anything with our science kit. Before you touched anything, you did something right here on the carpet. Can you toss it (a ball) please [student name]. I need some hands up, [student name] has the ball.

  • S1: We had to put them in second position whenever we had counter weights.

  • T: We did, whenever we had different shapes.

  • S1: Steady position.

  • T: Yes we had it in steady position. But before we went to our seats, we did something on the carpet.

  • S1: Balancing

  • T: We were balancing. Do remember what we were doing?

  • … (The discussion continues a minute more about balancing)

  • T: So while I read this story today, I want you to think about what we did with balance and motion.

Prior to reading Down comes the rain (Branley and Hale 1997), the second grade teacher led the following discussion:
  • T: We’re going to read part of my book, Down comes the rain. (holding up a cup with water in it) Does this have anything to do with rain?

  • Ss: (chorally) yes, no (overlapping)

  • T: Well some people said yes and some people said no. [asks student to sit] What about this is like rain?

  • S: the water.

  • T: The water, OK. Anything else that could be like rain? (teacher tells about another student’s observation about condensation). I want you listening for what it is called when water collects on something like this (referring to a cup of ice water) and I want you listening to see if you can get information about what causes it.

Thus the teachers gave students a purpose for reading and rather than using knowledge gained from prior experiences, asked students to consider implied questions based on an observation.

The teachers engaged children through pre-reading by providing a purpose for reading. Both teachers used a mnemonic device, PIE (P = persuade, I = Inform, and E = Entertain) to talk about purposes of texts. Both teachers made statements about finding information when reading information texts. Statements about finding information were never explicitly connected to an explicit question, but questions were implied. For example, the second grade teacher in the transcript above made reference to the class investigation of evaporation and suggested students ‘get information.’ Similarly, the first grade teacher had students discuss their studies of motion and then suggested that they read an information book to find out more. In contrast, when reading narratives, teachers discussed additional purposes. Teachers shared excitement based on the cover, discussed the fact that one book was a Caldecott Award recipient, and wondered about what would ‘happen in the story.’ Thus with informational texts teachers’ purposes focused on getting information, but with narratives teachers offered a variety of purposes.

Comprehension: Making Sure We Know and Understand the Text

Facilitating students’ comprehension was a significant focus of teachers’ actions. One-fourth of all the observed teacher actions included questions or comments that checked or increased students’ comprehension, half of which focused on vocabulary. However, the teachers also clarified events or claims in a text, asked students questions to check for comprehension, and asked students to make predictions (a comprehension strategy). An interesting observation about comprehension is that both teachers’ used similar strategies to support students’ comprehension regardless of whether reading narrative or informational texts.

Teachers’ comprehension actions most frequently focused on vocabulary. Typically, while reading, the teacher would encounter a word and ask students what the word meant. Both teachers would ask about unique words like kidney pie, ride operator, or drifts. Creative language in narrative texts invited frequent clarification of vocabulary. But, teachers also clarified vocabulary in informational texts, asking students about words like droplets, vapor, and counterbalance. Engagement with texts requires knowing vocabulary, but clarifying vocabulary does not necessarily represent intertextual connections and in this study did not lead to questions resulting in first-hand investigations.

Teachers also made comments and asked questions to clarify students’ understandings. Regardless of genre, teachers’ questions often focused on content that was potentially confusing. For example, when reading an information book about weather, the second grade teacher clarified a claim in the text that there was water vapor in the air. She asked students whether there was water in the air in the classroom and whether they could see it. This restated and clarified a claim in the text that water vapor was invisible. Similarly, when reading a narrative the first grade teacher asked students to make an inference about a claim in the text. The story claimed that people were nervous about getting on a roller coaster. The teacher asked how we would know that people in the story are nervous. Understanding a text is important for a reader to gain information or raise questions based on ideas or concepts in the text.

Asking students to make predictions about the text allowed teachers to facilitate students’ comprehension. The data revealed that predictions were only made when reading events narrative texts. Furthermore, making predictions followed a formulaic pattern. Both teachers asked students what might happen next in the sequence of events based on what had happened in the story. For example when reading Come on Rain (Hesse and Muth 1999) the second grade teacher led the following discussion:
  • T: (after reading a section of the narrative) What do you think they’re gonna do? What do you think all the mothers are going to do?

  • S1: I think they’re going to put on their bathing suits.

  • T: They’re going to put their bathing suits on too?

  • S2: They’re going to go play with the girls.

  • T: You think they’re going to go outside and play with the girls. Hmm. (continues reading)

Thus teachers’ attempted to have students make predictions about the sequence of events in the storyline. However, neither teacher asked for predictions about phenomena in texts. The teachers did point out phenomena and wonder about those phenomena, but never asked students to predict about what might happen with the phenomena represented.

Connecting and Wondering: What Is Represented in this Text or Image? Why Would that be?

Both teachers asked questions and invited discussion about the text or images that could lead to explaining phenomena or events. This action encouraged students to wonder about phenomena in both fiction and non-fiction texts. Teachers encouraged students to connect personal experiences with ideas, concepts, or events and wonder whether the ideas concepts or phenomena represented in texts were realistic. Some moments of wondering in discussions were productive and even stimulated subsequent hands-on investigations, in other cases moments explored concepts and clarified understandings of the text, and in other cases students did not see the issue as problematic or worth wondering about.

Helping students connect their experiences with texts is appealing, but not without challenges. An example of productive connections came in the second grade classroom, students made observations and comments to connect their personal experiences with events portrayed in Come on rain (Hesse and Muth 1999). Students shared their experiences on hot summer days (the context of the story) and how summer rain showers feel good on a hot summer day. Students connected personal weather experiences with phenomena portrayed in the story. Students began to think about concepts relevant to the phenomena, like how changes in temperature associated with rainfall events—a concept relevant to the on-going science unit. However, connecting with students’ experiences was not always productive. For example, when the first-grade class read Mirette on a High Wire (McCully 1997), students identified many relevant experiences. However, the students became very engaged with affective elements of the story. For example, when asked what they wondered about, one student asked, ‘I wonder why Belini was afraid.’ Similarly, during and after reading, students related events in the story with their personal experiences of successes and failures. The teacher reminded students of the class investigations of balancing and encouraged students to consider phenomenological aspects of the story. At one point, the teacher asked students to consider an image showing a high-wire walker cooking breakfast on the high wire. The teacher commented that it must be hard to balance without counterbalances (a concept children had explored), but even with this encouragement, students continued to focus on affective aspects of the story. These examples suggest that while connecting students’ lived experiences with phenomena portrayed in texts can provoke curiosity, the practice can also not as simple as pointing out phenomena.

From the perspective of wondering about phenomena, the reading event involving Roller Coaster (Frazee 2003) led to multiple student questions. The first-grade teacher and students wondered about a variety of phenomena in the book. For example in one section, the book describes the noise from the roller coaster. The teacher and students wondered and collaborated to explain what might cause the noise. When considering the illustration of a large hill, the teacher and students talked about changes in speed and the mechanisms that moved the roller coaster cars up the hill. Near the end of the book, when the illustration showed a loop in the fictional roller coaster, the image and the text generated substantial discussion about students’ experiences, the role of seatbelts, and how cars stay on the track. This discussion led to a question about whether a rider needs a seatbelt on a looped rollercoaster to stay in the car; ultimately this question led to an empirical investigation.

Other reading events also stimulated discussion and connection with students’ experiences. The first-grade class read an information text about motion. By looking at pictures in the text, the teacher scaffolded students’ connections to their personal experiences that were similar to phenomena portrayed in the text. Similarly, when the second grade class read an informational text about weather, the teacher and students compared the concepts explained in the text with their experiences in classroom-based, first-hand experiences with evaporation that preceded the reading event. Wondering about phenomena in this way was not limited to informational texts. While reading Mirette on the high wire (McCully 1997), the first grade teacher asked students about how Mirette was able to balance. Similarly, when reading The rain came down (Shannon 2000), the second grade teacher asked students to think about whether the conclusion, going on a picnic immediately after a heavy spring storm, made any sense. In these cases, teachers asked students to apply their scientific knowledge of phenomena to critically evaluate ideas, concepts, images or phenomena represented in the texts.

Discussion and Implications

The findings in this study support prior research about texts in science teaching but the findings also raise questions about the effective use of texts in science teaching. Scholars argue that narrative ways of knowing and reasoning can facilitate reasoning about connections between experiences and abstract phenomenological explanations (McEwan and Egan 1995; Norris et al. 2005). Narrative texts integrated in science teaching could facilitate and support such reasoning. Similarly, science education research offers insight on integrating informational texts in science teaching. But even with these theoretical and empirical arguments, scholars challenge science educators to evaluate fundamental and derived senses of scientific literacy (Yore et al. 2004). The following discussion explores the question: how did teachers’ attempts to share authority as well as teachers’ uses of engagement and comprehension strategies around narrative and informational texts create opportunities for students to develop fundamental and derived senses of scientific literacy?

Teachers’ comprehension strategies to scaffold students’ engagement with texts is consistent with claims that the role of the teacher is important (Ford 2004; Pappas et al. 2004). Both teachers devote time to students’ comprehension during reading events. The teachers use pre-reading strategies, clarification of vocabulary, and predictions to engage and clarify students’ comprehension. Teachers attention to comprehension is particularly important for science teaching since it affects how learners develop accurate conceptions of phenomena represented in texts (Smolkin and Donovan 2001). Yet these findings suggest that in particular for science teacher and teacher learning, the nature of comprehension—such as comprehending plot versus phenomenological accuracy—is an added dimension to consider. Furthermore, teachers’ use of comprehension strategies results in fundamental scientific literacy. Seeing how teachers’ actions led to derived scientific literacy requires a more nuanced consideration of the findings.

One finding focuses on how teachers ask students to make predictions. Predicting engages students and helps students comprehend the text. Yet the analysis shows that teachers have students make predictions about narrative rather than phenomenological dimensions of texts. Teachers asked students to use knowledge from the text to guess about the sequence of events—a narrative framing. Learning to make predictions is also important to teaching science; we use our knowledge of phenomena and frameworks of understanding to speculate based on available relevant information. However, since teachers only ask students to make predictions when reading narratives, students only have opportunities to learn to predict using narrative arcs as opposed to how prediction is also a scientific practice. This misses opportunities to develop derived senses of scientific literacy through reading events. A prediction that used derived senses of scientific literacy might ask students to use science knowledge to make predictions about phenomena represented in a text. But this approach raises a question; in what ways do narrative and informational texts allow or enable different kinds of predication? And building on this, what kinds of teacher knowledge is needed to think about the different kinds of prediction, how these represent practices in disciplines, and how to use that knowledge to make pedagogical decisions about uses of texts integrated in science learning?

Derived science literacy is seen when the classes generate explanations. Science educators encourage teachers and future teachers to ask explanatory ‘why’ questions. But this study demonstrates how explanatory questions can vary depending on the text being read; this has significant implications for science education. One kind ‘why’ question considers involves explanations of purposes for reading a particular book. This explanation facilitates learning about genre. Furthermore, asking explanatory questions when reading narratives can also lead to explanations of affective aspects of a story. For example, when the first grade class discusses the book Rollercoaster (Frazee 2003), the teacher asks students why the people were nervous about riding the rollercoaster; an explanatory question that does not require scientific explanations. Thus, when using narratives to support science learning, teachers need to focus on explaining phenomena represented in the story. This finding does not mean that one genre is more useful in science, but that it is important to think about the purpose for reading the book and the nature of questions that will challenge students to think and reason about phenomena.

A significant implication suggests that when integrating science teaching with other disciplines defining problems or purposes for reading teachers and students becomes important. One response involves re-thinking how teachers integrate to focus on using knowledge to generate understandings of texts or the world rather than using texts to deliver knowledge to students. This involves applying knowledge, in this case science knowledge, to understanding, interpreting, and analyzing the world as well as how phenomena are represented in various texts.

Practically, this would involve focusing on problems that are based in conceptual understandings of science or scientific practices (e.g. National Research Council 2007) to interrogate texts. In this study, both teachers problematize phenomena represented in texts. Both teacher lead discussions that either explain the phenomena or result in further inquiry. Most notably we see this when the first grade teacher and students begin talking about seatbelts on a rollercoaster, and then design a first-hand investigation to test whether objects on a looped track fall off or need attachments to stay on the track. The class identifies a phenomenological problem in the story, uses their science knowledge to raise questions, and ultimately design a first-hand investigation. This finding concurs with Whitin and Whitin (1997) and Saul et al. (2002) who argue that integrations that focus on inquiry rooted in problems facilitate both science and literacy learning. Unfortunately there is limited empirical evidence to support this claim, thus it deserves further science education research.

Such an approach has implications for how we think about teacher education and professional development. Teacher education does not regularly address integration of disciplines in teacher preparation. One thought is to connect or co-teach disciplinary methodology courses. However, without considerable efforts by teacher educators and deep curricular mapping, this approach could result in only fundamental scientific literacy. An alternative involves re-thinking content included in teacher education courses to include more content on knowledge of disciplines and disciplinary practices. This study revealed that practices such as comprehension, predicting, and questioning included disciplinary perspectives that varied across science and literacy. Preparation of teachers could include disciplinary differences, make disciplinary practices explicit for future elementary science teachers, and consider ways to challenge future teachers to appropriately embed and teach disciplinary practices in context. A benefit of this approach would be that it prepares future elementary teachers to implement the Common Core State Standards as well as the Next Generation Science Standards.

This study is limited since evidence of student learning was not collected. Based on prior research, the study focused on teachers’ actions (Ford 2004; Pappas et al. 2004), attempting to add how teachers’ actions varied across genres. Yet without student data, this does not reveal how these actions impacted student learning. However, inferring broad claims about student learning based on teachers’ actions around a particular text genre can lead to a faulty assumption is that students’ learning could be influenced by a single experience. We know from conceptual change research that children bring robust conceptual frames to science learning. With that in mind, future research could consider development of students’ fundamental and derived science literacies based on teachers’ actions. Additionally more research is needed on how teachers understand genre differences and recognize how engagement and comprehension strategies have different potential to facilitate learning of fundamental and derived science literacies.

Finally, these findings describe only two classrooms. The results raise question about the usefulness of narrative texts in science teaching. However, due to limited data the findings are not conclusive and thus warrant further study. Meanwhile, efforts to increase and improve uses of informational texts in elementary teaching should continue. Concurrently it is important that we continue to facilitate teacher learning around how to support students using scientific knowledge to engage with all genres of texts. In order to advance fundamental and derived science literacy, research should continue to investigate ways that teachers transform their planning and teaching to both learn and use science knowledge to engage with a variety of texts integrated into their science teaching.



I would like to thank the Elon University’s Faculty Research and Development program and the Hultquist Award for supporting this work. In addition, I am most grateful to the thoughtful, supportive, and helpful reviews received by the anonymous reviewers and the editor.


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Copyright information

© The Association for Science Teacher Education, USA 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Elon UniversityElonUSA

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