Two children reading science books

How To Use Read-Alouds To Teach Science

Mar. 16, 2023  ◊  By Studies Weekly

Science and reading often pair well, because students often need background information to understand the what, why, and how of a science activity.

According to Canice Thynne in her Oct. 7, 2022 article for Edutopia, “Reading a book usually leads to an engaging discussion about the person being written about or the historical time period during which they lived.” This can be extremely beneficial for young students learning about the world and how society works.

“[Books] also provide an excellent opportunity to connect with nature of science (NOS). This is especially true of books that describe people doing science, as NOS relates to ‘the wondering, investigating, questioning, data collecting, and analyzing,’” said Jeanne L. Brunner and Christine McGrail in their July 2022 NSTA article.

When read-alouds are paired with engaging discussions and activities, they can be useful tools when helping students understand scientific concepts.

Use Multiple Teaching Modes, Including Books

To solidify a concept in the students’ minds, it is useful to use a variety of modalities to teach the same principles. “Coordinating modes is important because every mode has limitations; any single representation only partly reflects a phenomenon,” Miranda S. Fitzgerald, Amber S. Bismack, Amelia Wenk Gotwals, Tanya S. Wright, and Erin K. Washburn explained in their July 2022 article for NSTA.

According to a January 2023 NSTA article by Janet Yamaguchi, telling stories is one effective modality to help students visualize scientific concepts. Yamaguchi started her article by telling a made-up story about a runaway shopping cart. She explained that the reason she did this was to show that as “the story continues…weaving in associated science concepts, while also compelling the listeners to internalize,” it helps students understand “science concepts, such as how a change of incline, speed, and/or the coefficient of friction relates to a change in energy transfer.”

Yamaguchi described that the reason stories are such an effective mode of teaching is that when students hear the phrase, “Let me tell you a story,” they are compelled to listen to, learn, and apply what they hear.

teacher sitting in front of students

1. Ask a Focus Question

Miranda S. Fitzgerald, Amber S. Bismack, Amelia Wenk Gotwals, Tanya S. Wright, and Erin K. Washburn discussed 5 steps to using read-alouds to teach scientific concepts in their July 2022 NSTA article. The first is asking a focus question. Your question should be answered in the story you choose to read, but should allow for some discussion and discovery on the part of your students.

2. Read and Help Students Visualize

As you read the story, ask your students more questions that will help them visualize what is happening. Try and direct all of your questions toward helping your students learn the main idea and answer the main focus question. Below are a few book ideas and ways to help students visualize and relate to the story.

Show That Scientists Can Be Anyone

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is a book about a 14-year-old Malawi village boy, William. The book shows William using the knowledge he learned at school to build windmills that powered irrigation for his family’s crops. As described by Jeanne L. Brunner and Christine McGrail in their July 2022 NSTA article, you can read this story, and others like it, to your students and discuss that a scientist does not look like a person of any specific age, gender, or race. Scientists can be anyone, even the students sitting in your classroom!

Define Creativity

Using the same book, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, you can discuss creativity and the scientific process. As Brunner and McGrail suggested, you can tell your students, “Scientists make observations about the world and come up with questions like how does something work or why does something happen. When they do this, they are being creative. Why is asking a new question being creative?”

Student Discussion

Discuss Different Forms of Observable Facts

One concept that stories help students grasp is the difference between observation and inference. With The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, you can discuss what evidence William observed and what he inferred based on those observations. “[William] imagined the wind could be an important source of energy for his town because he could see it moving things and feel it on his skin, even if he couldn’t see the wind itself,” Brunner and McGrail said, quoting a teacher name Mr. Russo. Ask your students what evidence they see/hear/feel of electrical energy!

3. Build and Observe

Hands-On Learning

Read-alouds provide great opportunities to get the kids involved in hands-on projects. Brunner and McGrail said, “During read-alouds, teachers can use discussion starters that capitalize on similarities between the stories being told and the activities that students are doing in the classroom, such as hands-on science investigations.”

hands-on learning

Thynne implemented this idea in the following way: “After we read one of these books, I like to invite students to do activities related to the text. A popular activity with my students is to create a product based on what we read, which allows us to review the engineering design process for each lesson.”

Most of the ideas listed beneath each of the following books are from Thynne’s October 7, 2022, Edutopia article. Thynne also suggested looking at the Tinkering Studio website for other ideas.

The Crayon Man

Have your students make a crayon holder. Help them brainstorm their designs by asking them questions like, “do you want your holder to have a lid,” or, “do you want it to have a handle?”

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

Make pinwheels or miniature windmills. Discuss with students how to design the blades to catch the wind. Use a fan or hairdryer to test their creations. “This could be a great time to show them how wind farms work in the real world,” (Thynne).

You might also make other inventions using wind power. For instance, a balloon-powered car. This might also provide an opportunity to teach about the simple machines involved in a toy car: the axle and the wheel. As students change different design features on their cars, how does this change how easily their cars can move? Discuss why.

Personal Real or Fictional Stories

“Whatever story you might tell, whether from your own life, your imagination, or a treasured storybook, know how impactful it can be when told aloud,” said Yamaguchi, “If you then go to the next step and follow-up with a related visualization and/or hands-on activity, you can be assured that the introduced concept will be applied by the learner in a most effective way.”

Let’s go back to the runaway shopping cart story. This was a personal fictional story told by Yamaguchi, yet it had just as many teaching points as any book. For a hands-on activity, Yamaguchi had her students roll a ball down an inclined slope of pipe insulation. As students changed the slope of the incline, Yamaguchi asked questions like, “What happens to the speed of the ball?” and, “What forces are causing that to happen?”

Draw and write

4. Draw and Write

After leading your students in discussions and activities about a story, have them write or draw about what they learned. This helps solidify the information in their minds and allows each student a moment to reflect on what they are learning about, regardless of how well they participate in group hands-on activities.

5. Summarize Learnings

As a class, summarize what you have learned together. Have your students share their thoughts about what the book and the activities taught them. Take this time to come up with a final answer for the focus question.

Check for Understanding

Tests are not the only ways to check how well your students understand a concept. You can also try any of the following, as listed in another Edutopia article by Laura Thomas (April 26, 2019):

    • Entry and exit cards that ask students to answer the focus question
    • Low-stakes quizzes and polls
    • Interview assessments
    • Self-assessments

Teach Your Students Science With Studies Weekly

Studies Weekly makes it easy to use the ideas listed above. Studies Weekly’s science products have plenty of opportunities for read-alouds, hands-on projects, and group scientific discussions. Get Studies Weekly in your classroom today!

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