Integrating Science and Literature

Maximize time and engage learners by using children's literature in your science lessons.

By Erin Bailey


roller coaster

Integrating children’s literature into the science curriculum certainly isn’t a new trend. However, the variety, availability, and quality of trade books have increased dramatically which makes it easier than ever. Many science teachers use literature to engage students and maximize time since literary connections can be made at the same time as science concepts are covered. While it is natural to reach for nonfiction books, many fiction selections may be better suited to engaging young learners before they begin to explore a concept. Here are three ways to use trade books in your next science lessons.

Force and Gravity

In Marla Frazee’s fun story, Roller Coaster, children will relate to the many types of riders who get on a roller coaster. Whether they have ridden one or not, class members will all have an opinion on what makes a thrilling coaster ride. After they are thoroughly engaged, students will explore the scientific concepts of force and gravity by making their own coasters from foam insulating tubes (for plumbing pipes) cut in half. Each pair or small group will also need a plastic cup and a foosball or large marble.

After passing out the materials, pose the following challenges:

  • Can you make the ball roll from one end of the track to the other and stop in the cup?
  • Can you make the ball roll faster?
  • Can you make the ball roll slower?
  • Can you make the ball roll over a hill?
  • Can you make the ball roll over two hills?
  • Can you make the ball go through a loop?

After your budding coaster engineers have accomplished, or at least attempted the challenges, each of them should answer a series of questions:

  • What made the ball roll?
  • What made it roll slower? What made it roll faster?  Did the ball ever stop? Why?
  • Did your ball roll off the track? Why do you think this happened?
  • Did you accomplish each of the challenges the first time you attempted them?

Now participants have the opportunity to explain what they’ve learned in their own words. Have each child draw a roller coaster that would work in real life using what they learned from their exploration. They should label their coaster’s highest point and where the car would travel the fastest and the slowest.

Dropping Races

Now that students have some experience with roller coasters, it is time to transfer that knowledge to a new situation. Depending on the age of your class, some pupils will be familiar with the concept of gravity and some won’t. Read the book I Fall Down by Vicki Cobb, which explains gravity through conducting dropping races.

  • First, gather a few items for the children to drop: pennies, marbles, paperclips, tennis balls, and books work well. 
  • Hold up two of the items and ask learners to predict which one will hit the floor first. Do not drop anything yet. Continue making predictions, pairing up different items each time. Intuition tells us that heavier items should fall faster. In actuality, every race will be a tie. However, it will take many examples for children to believe this.
  • After recording their predictions, pairs of participants should perform the dropping races. For additional inspiration, watch the historic video of Apollo astronaut Dave Scott dropping a feather and a hammer on the moon. 

Scientific Questioning

Another important skill that can be learned from trade books is how to gather information through questioning. Goldilocks and the Three Bears will engage children in the importance of asking good questions. Point out that the question, “Who has been sitting in my chair?” could take a long time to answer. It could have been the mailman, Baby Bear’s teacher, or the king of the jungle. 

Now show the class a bag in which you previously placed a mystery item. Ask them to guess what is inside. This will likely take a long time. After a few minutes, ask participants to consider if this type of guessing is a good method. Then model several examples of yes/no type questions that can eliminate possibilities. Is it something we use in the classroom? Is it something we use on the playground? Is it something we use in math class?

Return to the story and let students think of yes/no questions that the bears could ask to help them discover who or what is in their house. A fun follow-up to this is to play the classic board game Guess Who.

Measurements and Recording Data

Zack’s Alligator by Shirley Mozelle is another book children enjoy that will serve dual duty in science. The story lends itself well to taking measurements of length, mass, and capacity, and when combined with magical capsules that grow when water is added, young scientists are sure to be engaged. Gro Beasts absorb water and expand for several days, which make them perfect for measurement lessons. If possible, start the lesson early in the day so that the first measurements can be taken before going home in the afternoon.

Read Zack’s Alligator and then ask your class to estimate how big an alligator is. It might be helpful to let them make chalk marks on the floor to represent their guesses. To get the scientific wheels turning, ask your learners why they think Bridget needed water to grow, and why she shrank when she was on her walk. 

Send pupils back to their desks and distribute the Gro Beasts capsules. If the participants already know the secret, instruct them not to spoil the surprise. After children have added water, they will need to wait several hours. Before leaving school for the day, they should weigh their beast and measure its length from nose to tail. If your learners are not yet using rulers, it’s okay to let them measure using a string, which they can cut and glue to a piece of poster board. Later, the recorded data can be used to make line graphs. Have your class predict what will happen to the sponge animal if it stays in water overnight. In the morning, repeat the measuring process. Young scientists can continue taking measurements for several days.

Students can begin the reverse process by removing the Gro Beast from the water. Like Bridget the alligator, it will shrink gradually. Participants can measure the animals for several days as they dry out and shrink. Learners can make line graphs with their data and explain what is happening.

Extension Ideas

To elaborate on the concept of how polymers are used in real life, compare the absorption capacity of sponges and baby diapers. Your class members should take careful measurements of the amount of water being absorbed by each.

If you have an older group, pose a question such as, “Water is really good for people, but sometimes I like to drink other things. I wonder if the Gro Beasts would grow well in other liquids?” Let each pair of learners grow one beast in water and the other in lemonade or iced tea. Make sure they carefully graph their results over several days since the beasts expand at an equal rate initially and then the growth in the variable liquid slows.

Finding a way to engage students is a big part of scientific inquiry. Trade books are one way to achieve this goal.

Check Out These Lessons and Articles for More Ideas:

Engaging Young Scientists with Inquiry- Part One

Not sure what scientific inquiry is all about? Not sure how to turn a traditional lesson into one that uses inquiry? This two-part article lays out the essential features of scientific inquiry and gets you and your class started on making predictions, asking scientific questions, and making observations.

Engaging Young Scientists with Inquiry- Part Two

Part two discusses the importance of having pupils evaluate their data and explain the results. It also suggests alternate assessments and the need for timely feedback. When used together, these two articles can help you rehab many of your traditional science labs to be inquiry-based.

Using Children's Literature to Enhance Your Science Curriculum This interesting PowerPoint for teachers provides concrete reasons why integrating literature and science benefits children. In just fifteen slides, the author discusses the process skills and strategies that readers and scientists must use as well as how to get started using trade books in your science curriculum.