3 tips for sneaking science into K–5 language arts lessons

Why does my hair stick straight up after going down a slide? What is COVID-19? How did that caterpillar turn into a butterfly?

Kids are bombarded daily with issues, mysteries, and observations they can only properly address through science and engineering. A call to action from the National Academies for Science, Engineering, and Medicine urges leaders to fund science equally with math and ELA because science is essential for everyone.

How can elementary teachers serve their students’ science needs when time and resources are prioritized elsewhere? Providing readings about science topics may seem to be the answer, but while this might make students more informed readers, it won’t make them better at doing science—making sense of the natural and designed world around them. However, a few lesson-planning tweaks can shift a science-oriented reading lesson into a lesson that lets students use reading to do science.

  1. Start with phenomena: Use students’ natural curiosity to drive their reading.
  2. Use science and engineering practices (SEPs) to help students do science in their reading class.
  3. Help students intentionally use crosscutting concepts (CCCs) as tools for making sense of phenomena and solving problems.

Here’s how to begin making these changes.

1. Start with phenomena: Use students’ natural curiosity to drive their reading

Before introducing an informational science text (or even fiction with a science-oriented theme), consider which observable, intriguing event (phenomenon) the text provides an explanation for. Or ask, “Which real-life problem can the text help us solve?”

Introduce that phenomenon before introducing the text. You can do this with a brief video clip, a simple demonstration, or a quick peek out the window, depending on how local or common the phenomenon is.

Science is essential for everyone.

For example, the day before you introduce a text about shadows, have students observe a tree’s shadow outside the window in the morning and again in the afternoon. The phenomenon the students should observe is that the shadows look different at different times. Let this ignite their curiosity.

2. Use science and engineering practices (SEPs) to help students do science in their reading class

Use any or all of the SEPs below before reading the text.

You will probably find that activities become iterative; as students engage in the reading, they may want to revisit their initial questions, models, or plans. Allow your students to revise their initial thinking as they gain information from the text.

Once student curiosity is engaged, provide the text to help satisfy that curiosity.

SEP 1: Asking questions and defining problems

Encourage students to ask questions about the phenomenon or to pinpoint the exact problem and the characteristics that a good solution should have. Whenever possible, guide students toward questions they could potentially answer through their own observations. For example, when is a tree’s shadow longest? Do all trees have shadows? What causes shadows?

Post the list of questions and remind students to keep them in mind as they read and discuss the text.

SEP 2: Developing and using models

Have pairs or small groups of students discuss and sketch or build simple models of their initial guesses for explanations of the phenomenon or their ideas for a solution.

Students who are trying to understand tree shadows could use a marker as a physical model of a tree. They could place the marker in the path of a bright light (a flashlight or sunlight from a window, for example) and try to create shadows of different sizes, shapes, and directions. Or, if students have been observing a tree’s shadow throughout the day, they could draw diagrams on paper to try to describe their emerging ideas about the relationships among a light source, an object, and the size or location of the shadow.

SEP 3: Planning and carrying out investigations

Have groups brainstorm ways to get answers to the questions they have about the phenomenon and let students make predictions about the results they expect from the investigations. For example, when working with tree shadows, students should make a plan that might include the following steps:

  1. Pick a tree.
  2. Once every hour, from 9 until 3, draw a picture of the tree and its shadow.
  3. Make a chart to show the pattern of the shadow throughout the day.

Even if students don’t actually carry out every investigation they plan, the thought process is important. For both a child and a scientist, pondering effective ways to gather information to answer a question is one of the first steps to true discovery and sense-making.

3. Help students intentionally use crosscutting concepts (CCCs) as tools for making sense of phenomena and solving problems

You can quickly become familiar with the appropriate grade-level crosscutting concept elements by looking at “Crosscutting Concepts in Next Generation Science Standards.” As you monitor individuals and groups working through various SEPs using the suggested activities above, notice which CCCs students are naturally employing. Are they trying to identify a pattern? Are they stating a cause-and-effect relationship? Are they making a model that shows interacting parts of a system?

Begin by naming the CCCs you have observed students using (these prompts can help guide you). Eventually, encourage your students to identify the CCCs themselves. Over time, you should be able to suggest a particular CCC for the students to apply to a phenomenon or problem. You could even assign a different CCC to each group to illustrate the various tools that scientists and engineers can apply to the same phenomenon or problem.

Further reading

With continued practice and guidance, your students will be better equipped to make sense of the world and work toward solutions grounded in science to improve what they find there.

For more information on the topics explored in this blog post, please see our other science-focused Teach. Learn. Grow. articles:

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