Bringing Back Books: Using Text to Support Hands-On Investigations for Scientific Inquiry

By Cervetti, Gina; Barber, Jacqueline | Science and Children, November 2009 | Go to article overview

Bringing Back Books: Using Text to Support Hands-On Investigations for Scientific Inquiry


Cervetti, Gina, Barber, Jacqueline, Science and Children


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How can you connect, supplement, and extend students' firsthand investigations? Look toward your bookshelves for a clue. There is often more than one answer to any question asked in a science classroom, and similarly, there is more than one way to teach science. Until recently, inquiry-based science educators have actively avoided the use of text, relying on a generation of hands-on science programs that included little reading. In our minds, there's no question that hands-on investigations should be at the center of science instruction. It may then surprise you that we have spent the past several years grappling with the question of whether and how books--especially trade books--can be used to teach science. How can you use books to support and enrich students' inquiry experiences and create a more robust and authentic context for learning? For one, you can incorporate reading and writing--and literacy skills in general--into lesson plans as students learn about the work of other scientists and communicate their findings. Inquiry-based science educators have started to acknowledge that these are important tools in scientific inquiry and that scientists rely on and use literacy skills every day (Glynn and Muth 1994; Yore 2000; Yore et al. 2004).

In our curriculum-development work, we have focused on using books in support of students' firsthand experiences.

Books and other textual materials can serve the following roles in support of scientific inquiry: providing context, modeling, supporting firsthand inquiry, supporting secondhand inquiry, and delivering content. As we describe each of these roles, we share examples that demonstrate how trade books can support students' (a) involvement in inquiry experiences, (b) grasp of science concepts, and (c) understanding of the nature of science. With the variety of excellent trade books available, you are certain to find books that serve similar roles in your own science units.

Role 1: Providing Context

Books and other textual materials can connect everyday experiences outside the classroom world with classroom investigations and invite students to think about these everyday experiences in a new way. In addition, students can be inspired by their reading to pose questions and engage in subsequent investigations.

Books can also introduce the natural contexts in which phenomena operate (e.g., habitats in which the organisms that we study live). For example, many teachers offer students the opportunity to observe the transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly. Although observing this metamorphosis firsthand in the classroom provides a powerful experience, many students know little about the natural habitat of butterflies. Joanne Ryder's Where Butterflies Grow (1996) shows how caterpillars are camouflaged in the surroundings they choose and how and where caterpillars attach to vertical surfaces as they metamorphose into chrysalises. Reading this text can provide students with a rich understanding of the natural context in which butterflies live as they observe a fascinating part of the life cycle of butterflies.

Books provide context for inquiry-based investigations by connecting investigations to science and scientists (e.g., scientists who research related topics, how scientists use models). In our work as curriculum developers, we created a book that helps students relate their experience of cleaning up a small amount of oil in a dish tub model to the challenge of cleaning up thousands of gallons of oil in a moving ocean (Parizeau 2007). We also use a book to connect students' experiences designing new soda recipes to the work of food scientists (Cervetti 2007a). Having developed their own soda recipes, students read a book about how a food scientist creates new flavors of jelly beans. After reading, they reflect on how their design process is like the one used by the scientist.

Role 2: Modeling

Books can be rich sources of scientific models for students. …

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