Academic journal article The Science Teacher

The Nature of Science in Popular Nonfiction: Popular Science Books Encourage Students' Literacy Skills and Interest in Science

Academic journal article The Science Teacher

The Nature of Science in Popular Nonfiction: Popular Science Books Encourage Students' Literacy Skills and Interest in Science

Article excerpt

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"Why do we have to learn this?" The question has the power to strike fear in the heart of even the most seasoned science teacher. While planning a 10th-grade summer physical science course, we stumbled across a strategy to help put this question out of students' minds. As part of the course, students were required to read selections from a popular nonfiction science book. Because the selections were interesting and accessible, there was no hint of the "Why do we have to learn this?" attitude from students--in fact, the reaction was quite the opposite. The human story that framed the science concepts truly engaged students in learning the science--they even requested more readings from the book because it helped them understand course concepts!

By having students read a popular nonfiction science book, we were able to promote literacy and provide an authentic portrayal of the nature of science in a way that was fun and interesting for them. This article describes our experience using a nonfiction science book in the classroom and suggests literacy activities to enhance science and reading comprehension.

Promoting literacy

There is a growing body of research that suggests that learning language is critical to learning science (e.g., Douglas et al. 2006; Fradd et al. 2001). Both science and literacy educators have noted the shared nature of learning strategies that are essential for deep understanding of science concepts and processes. Our course design included the intentional use of literacy strategies to promote effective physical science learning. These strategies--which include such activities as concept maps, stop and jot, and chunking--are presented in Figure 1.

Because the nonfiction science reading was a last-minute addition to the course, we chose a single book--A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson (2003)--that aligned with the course objectives. Drawing from the fields of Earth science, astronomy, chemistry, physics, and biology, this book presents the scientific worldview of how the universe, the Earth, and life came to be. We chose this book because it contains substantive and accurate science, as well as the historical development of scientific concepts. The writing style is accessible, rather than "textbookish," and therefore appeals to a lay audience. The class read one chapter for each of the five course units--Matter, Energy and Waves, Motion and Force, Electrostatics and Electricity, and Magnets and Electromagnetism--plus an additional chapter that presented a brief overview of what is known about the universe today. Although we chose to use the Bryson book for our course assignment, there are many other popular nonfiction science books that could also serve this purpose (see "Other reading suggestions," p. 31).

In addition to readings from A Short History of Nearly Everything, teaching activities included a combination of learning cycles, demonstrations, short lectures, and small and whole group "sense-making" discussions. Students were assigned readings from the book the night after being taught related material, along with various literacy strategies to assist with reading comprehension. For example, in the chapter about the atomic structure of matter, students were given three tasks to accompany specific readings from the chapter:

1. Draw a picture of the experimental setups, outcomes, or physical phenomenon described in the paragraph on Rutherford's scattering experiments.

2. Make three connections between what you read and what you learned in class.

3. Identify the topic sentences in this passage.

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For other chapters, some of the literacy strategies assigned with the readings required the use of visual organizers such as concept maps, similarities/differences charts, and conclusion/evidence charts. Other strategies included chunking portions of chapters, stop and jot, and responding to questions about specific passages. …

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