Academic journal article Science and Children

A Natural Integration: Student-Created Field Guides Seamlessly Combine Science and Writing

Academic journal article Science and Children

A Natural Integration: Student-Created Field Guides Seamlessly Combine Science and Writing

Article excerpt

"Your ivy is climbing all over my Western Red Cedar!" exclaimed fourth grader David as he pointed up the trunk.

"Yeah, I know. My English Ivy can kill your tree!" came Ron's confident reply.

"Who the heck takes care of this place anyway?" grumbled David.

This conversation highlights some of the student learning that occurred during an integrated science and writing unit that we developed and implemented in a combined third/fourth-grade class. Our five-week study taught students how to write a field guide that identified the plants in a small wooded area they passed through on their way to their school playground. By creating this authentic genre of science writing, students came to understand and care for the natural world in their immediate environment. They also developed important science, reading, and writing skills through purposeful work. Here we describe the process we used to develop a field guide unit (see unit overview in Figure 1). We chose to have the students write a field guide about plants because they were easily accessible at their school, but we designed the curriculum to work for a wide range of items, such as animals, rocks, seashells, or other readily available materials. Writing field guides that focus on local features provides students with science and writing curriculum that is both concrete and relevant.

Immersion and Exploration

Before students can begin writing field guides, they need to learn how to read them. In this phase students develop an understanding of what field guides are, how they are organized, what they might find in an entry, how to use a field guide, etc. We started by creating several identification stations, each including a different collection (potted plants, seashells, rocks and minerals, etc.) and a few relevant field guides, including some written for adults and some written for children. Students rotated through the stations with a partner, trying to identify as many of the items as they could.

As students began trying to tell the difference between two seashells or two rocks they also began to notice and describe different properties: size, shape, color, hardness, texture, etc. Students found they needed to refine their descriptions to be more specific, "Well, this rock is more like dark gray than black" or "I think this shell is striped, not spotted." Our students also started noticing vocabulary, "What's foliage?" and "What do they mean by range?"

These explorations also led students to new understandings about the texts. They began giving each other hints: "Look, it's organized by color," or "First you have to figure out if it's a snail or a bivalve." We encouraged students to use what they already knew about reference books, such as using the index or table of contents, to help them make sense of how field guides worked.

We provided partners with a simple recording sheet to log their "best guesses," and at the end of the session we asked them to reflect on their strategies. Together, we created a list that included: using your senses, looking at details, using background knowledge, using both pictures and writing, and "being persistent."

One thing we noticed during this phase was that our third and fourth graders over-relied on pictures for making identifications. In order to help them see the importance of using the text, we designed a "mystery plant" lesson in which students had to identify a plant using two entries that had very similar photographs and modeled for them how to use the text as well as the pictures. The students had to keep track of what information from each entry was helpful, which they thought was the correct identification, and their reasoning behind their decision (see Figure 2).


Finally, we sent students on a scavenger hunt out into the area of the school grounds where they would be making their field guides. This helped them use their newfound field-guide skills in the "real world" and also familiarized them with the plants they would later be describing in their own guide. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.