Books And Stories In Children’s Science: The preliminary findings of the basics project

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Books And Stories In Children’s Science:

The preliminary findings of the BASICS Project
John F. McCullagh

Glenda Walsh

Julian G. Greenwood
Stranmillis University College



Northern Ireland

We report on a project that examined the benefits of introducing books and stories into science teaching in the early years of primary school. Student teachers used fiction and non-fiction books to introduce science lessons. We wished to determine whether their use promoted pupil engagement for the science topic being taught. Data were gathered using questionnaires and interviews administered to children, students and teachers. It was found that the use of books and stories within science enhanced pupil engagement; in particular observation and communication skills were enhanced, as were their confidence, decision making and problem solving abilities.

Key words





This paper reports on the preliminary findings of the BASICS Project (Books And Stories In Children’s Science), funded by the AstraZeneca Science Teaching Trust. The three year project explores how books and stories can support the smooth transition of children’s experience of science between Foundation Stage and Key Stage 1. The project involves principals, science coordinators and teachers from a cluster of primary schools working with staff and undergraduate students from Stranmillis University College Belfast, and science advisers from the South Eastern Education and Library Board. During this first ‘modelling’ phase of the project (2006-2007), the class teachers engaged in structured observation, as the students planned and taught a series of enquiry-based science lessons making use of books and stories. This paper reports on the findings from the perspective of both the teachers and the pupils. In phase 2, the ‘scaffolding’ phase (2007-2008), the class teachers, will adopt this approach in their teaching, with the student providing assistance and support. The final ‘autonomous’ phase 3 will see the class teachers continuing to develop this practice. It is hoped that this model for development will enhance science teaching across each of the cluster of schools involved and beyond.

Science in the curriculum
This project comes at a time of curriculum change in Northern Ireland and therefore seeks to support schools as they adapt their approaches to science at lower primary level. Within the Revised Northern Ireland Curriculum, science, along with History and Geography is included as one of the six learning areas called ‘The World Around Us’. The Revised Curriculum promotes subject integration and encourages teachers to make relevant connections’ in children’s learning (CCEA, 2007). Teachers also are encouraged to have considerable flexibility to select from within the learning areas those aspects they consider appropriate to the ability and interests of their pupils (CCEA, 2007). In the previous curriculum, science was included alongside Numeracy and Literacy as a core subject. We therefore feel that science may now be perceived as less important and therefore marginalised. In order to counter any such notions it is more important than ever that science teaching is linked to other aspects of the curriculum (in this case Literacy), and that its potential for supporting skills development is fully realised.

The revised curriculum also introduces a Foundation Stage where a less formal approach to learning is to be adopted. The principles underpinning the Foundation Stage are that young children learn best when learning is interactive, practical and enjoyable for both children and teachers (CCEA, 2007). Recent evaluation of the ‘Early Years Enriched Curriculum’ (a pilot for the Foundation Stage) by Sproule et al. (2005) supports this approach but identifies clear differences between the experiences of Year1/2 teachers and Year 3/4 teachers with regard to the availability of training and resources. The potential exists for disruption to children’s progress if teaching moves too abruptly to the more formal approach of Key Stage 1 and the principles of the Foundation Stage are not fully developed. We see here the potential for bridging this transition from Foundation into Key Stage 1, and highlighting the closeness of the play-based approaches within Early Years settings and the enquiry-based practical work at Key Stages 1 and 2 (Harlen et al., 2003).

Supporting development in science
Despite the progress made in primary science (OFSTED 2002), teachers’ confidence and training continues to be the most significant issue currently facing primary science (Murphy & Beggs, 2005). Murphy and Beggs’ (2005) scoping study also reported teachers’ concern at the lack of resources and continual professional development available and their view that making science more relevant to pupils’ experience is the best way to improve the teaching and learning of science. One possible way to make science more relevant and accessible to children is to incorporate books and stories within science lessons. Whilst this is by no means a new idea (Gould, 1900), there have been many recent examples of different approaches, for example, using poems (Speedie, 2002; Feasey, 2006), story webs (Oliver, 1999), and making ‘Big Books’ (McMahon, 1999). It is the use of books and stories as an introduction to enquiry-based science which is the focus of this project. Cavendish et al. (2006) report how stories can be effectively used as starting points for science by liberating and channelling the energy and enthusiasm of young children as they explore their world. This is particularly relevant when adopting an enquiry-based approach, when we are exploring children’s ideas through discussion. The importance of talk in developing reasoning and scientific understanding has been outlined by Keogh and Naylor (2006) and by Goldsworthy (2004). Nevertheless Murphy and Beggs (2005) report that only a small fraction of teachers make use of stories in science.

The aim of this project was therefore to allow teachers from a cluster of primary schools to observe first hand the merits of using books and stories within enquiry-based science. This ‘modelling’ phase of the project will hopefully provide the prerequisites for change in professional practice of effective adequate time, resources and support (Fullan, 2001). We have previously used this model for teacher development with great success (Murphy et al., 2004).

Project aims and details
Phase 1 of the project involved a partnership between the project team: 12 student teachers, principals, science coordinators and teachers from a cluster of five primary schools, during the period September 2006 to June 2007. The students, supported by the project team and their host teachers, planned and taught science over a period of six weeks. The science lessons were enquiry-based and used a book or story as an introduction and often during the concluding discussion. During the lessons the classroom teachers engaged in a structured observation activity. A training and planning seminar was held prior to the teaching phase, whilst a concluding seminar was held a few weeks after the teaching had finished to share experience between the participating schools. The overall aim of the project was to promote the smooth transition of children’s science experience by supporting a common approach to best practice in the final year of Foundation Stage into the first year of Key Stage 1. The ‘best practice’ approach is one which is stimulating and relevant to children (books and stories) and child-centred (enquiry-based). The project design supported transition by providing the opportunity for the teachers of the two year groups to plan together and to adopt a common approach. During this phase, the teachers observed and compared lessons involving both their own cohort of pupils and the pupils on the other side of the Foundation/Key Stage 1 interface. This practice provided the teachers with the opportunity to identify the different levels within children’s progression in science enquiry skills.

The science topics were chosen by the host schools in accordance with their science programme for the term. Each student planned a series of six enquiry-based lessons which included the use of a book or a story. The lesson plan required the student teachers to identify learning intentions and identify skills relating to both the science enquiry aspect and the literacy aspect of the lesson. During each lesson the teacher engaged in a structured observation activity. The teachers were also required to record any signs where they felt the book or story was enhancing the children’s learning experience.

Project Evaluation
Data collection methods
The data were collected using questionnaires, semi-structured interviews, focus group interviews (pupils), and a structured observation activity using a modified version of Walsh’s Quality Learning Instrument (Walsh & Gardner, 2005). This enquiry-based science Quality Learning Instrument (QLI-ebs) was used by teachers during their own science lessons before and after the students’ intervention. The student teachers also applied it to lessons at the very start and at the end of the teaching phase. Questionnaires were administered to teachers, science coordinators and student teachers before the initial planning seminar and then after the students had completed their period of teaching. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with principals, science coordinators, teachers and student teachers on completion of this phase of the project.
A key aspect of the project examined responses of the children to the greater use of stories in their science activities as an array of research (e.g. Walsh et al., 2006) emphasizes that what young children have to say is of interest and is informative and should not be overlooked in any project concerning them. Evidence was therefore obtained by use of two data collection methods: the observations of children during their science lessons and focus group interviews with six groups of approximately eight children chosen by the class teacher.
The observations

The key aim of the observations was to evaluate whether the quality of the scientific experience had improved as a result of the inclusion of books and stories into the lessons. Based on this premise it was intended not to focus on outcomes (i.e. had children’s scientific knowledge improved), but rather to focus into the learning processes during the lessons in terms of children’s learning dispositions and use of scientific skills. In this way it could be argued that the aim was to capture what Katz (1995) terms the ‘bottom up’ perspective of quality i.e. how does it feel to be a child in this particular activity.

The QLI is a process measure of quality which aims to capture the quality of the learning experience on offer in a given early years setting. In this way it challenges the pre-existing notion that quality can only be determined in terms of learning outcomes, teaching style and context. Instead, as argued by Walsh et al. (2006), the QLI rates the quality of a setting according to the way it meets the developmental needs of the children. It is embedded in an experiential model of how young children learn and develop and it focuses on nine key themes, namely motivation, concentration, confidence, independence, wellbeing, socials interaction, respect, multiple skill acquisition and higher order thinking skills. The QLI has proven to a highly reliable and valid instrument (Walsh & Gardner, 2005), its formulation mediated by evidence from a series of pilot observations, the views of early years experts, a calibration study and a Krippendorf’s alpha test showing a high level of inter-rater reliability (0.73-1.0).

The QLI-ebs maintains its focus on the themes of ‘motivation’, ‘concentration’ and ‘confidence’ (drawn directly from the QLI) but with the addition of ‘observation and communication’, ‘predicting’, ‘problem-solving’ and ‘decision-making’. Although the Higher Order Thinking Skills indicator in the QLI touches upon these, it does so in quite a generalized way and the intention was to make these skills more specific and pronounced for this science-focused study. Unlike the QLI which considers the entire triangle of interaction in its evaluation (i.e. the children’s actions, the teaching strategies and the role of the environment), the QLI-ebs focuses solely on the children’s actions as a means of capturing the children’s responses to the use of stories and books in their science lessons. Each of these seven themes are rated on a high (3) to low (1) basis and a general picture of practice is captured (i.e. the majority of children), rather than targeting specific children. The observation is carried out over the course of the entire science lesson and after the lesson has been delivered, a rating is made against the QLI -ebs based on a best fit model.

For the purposes of this study, the QLI-ebs was used both by classroom and student teachers. The teachers (n = 6) used the QLI-ebs on a science lesson before the intervention and then after the intervention; while the students (n = 10) used the QLI-ebs immediately after their first Science lesson within the intervention and then after their last science lesson.
Focus Group interviews
Six focus group interviews were conducted with approximately 6 - 8 pupils (aged 6-7 years) in each group. A puppet or toy was used on each occasion to act as a stimulant for discussion. Approximately six questions were posed in an effort to encourage the children to talk about their experience of using books and stories in their science lessons.
Comments from teachers
All the teachers reported that the use of books and stories greatly enhanced the learning experience of the children. The book or story was seen to provide a relevant and child-friendly context for the science which in turn provided the opportunity for developing children’s language and thinking skills. This synergy was a common theme which emerged from this study, highlighting the merits of adopting a more integrated approach to teaching. The three most cited advantages related to children’s motivation and enjoyment, language development, and the support which a story can provide for developing science concepts.
The teachers commented on how children love stories so therefore from the very start of the lesson they were engaged and motivated. Thus the story was seen as the ideal way to introduce the science, as one teacher explained: I realise what a valuable introduction this can be (using a story) and how it engages children immediately through what they are familiar with.

The narrative form of the story was seen as providing a structure and meaning to the lesson which developed into an activity with real purpose. Children were judged to be more involved in their learning, often empathising with the characters in the story and therefore motivated to help come up with a possible solution or advice regarding the particular problem or scenario. In this way a positive disposition to ‘finding out’ was developed which sustained children’s focus throughout the lesson. The revisiting of the story or book during the conclusion or plenary was also valued: When they went back to the story you could see what they had learned. They also would help thinking about a different possible ending, using their new knowledge.

The use of a second and slightly different story was also considered an ideal way to support children in transferring or applying their ideas to a new situation. This use of stories or books seemed to have developed teachers’ awareness of where ‘science’ can be accommodated within the curriculum, as suggested by: Being involved in this project has made me more aware of how much ‘science’ is an integral part of our everyday lives. The information we can gleam is not just restricted to ‘facts’. Fiction in stories, poetry and song can provide a jumping off point and reinforce the learning process. I am enjoying resourcing stories and poems for my future lessons.
There was marked increase in teachers’ awareness of the role of fiction in science lessons as evidenced by the comment: I think I will be more inclined to use fiction books or a combination of fiction and factual books in the future. I will also be on the look out for science opportunities in the books that we already use.
This use of book and stories was also considered to greatly support the development of children’s general use of language and their ‘science talk’. The secure environment brought by the use of a story was felt to encourage even the more shy children to offer opinions and comments. This approach was considered to make science more accessible. The resultant increase in talking and listening was seen to develop children’s vocabulary, both scientifically and generally. For example, lessons on materials using a feely box allowed the idea of ‘opposites’ to be explored and descriptive language to be developed. The story could often provide a stimulus for talking as suggested by the observation: I found it useful to compare how some of the children are motivated and willing to use scientific language.

The opportunity, which the introductory story or book provided for exploring children’s current thinking, was considered by several teachers to be a key advantage of this approach. For example children’s ideas on melting and freezing could be accessed via a discussion of the story of ‘The Snowman’. The more abstract concepts such as heat, insulation and changes of state could now be accessed by talking about the sun, the Snowman’s coat and his inevitable melting. The story was considered to provide a shared experience in which children’s ideas could be explored and developed. This twinned development of both science and literacy was outlined by the comment: The project exemplifies how literacy can fit so naturally into science. Young children love to learn through shared reading. The children responded very positively to the stories which puts the science into context for them and provides the opportunity to refer back to the story.

The QLI-ebs
Overall, the findings would suggest that the greater use of books and stories in the science lessons increased the overall quality of the scientific experience from the children’s perspective. The mean total scores on the QLI-ebs as rated by the teachers increased significantly (t5 = 5.4, P = 0.001) as a result of the inclusion of books and stories to the science lessons (fig. 1). Similarly there was a significant (t9 = 4.6, P = 0.0006) increase in the students’ scores over the teaching period which can be explained by the fact that the students became more competent in integrating more books and stories into the content of their science lessons (fig. 2).
A fuller exploration of the QLI-ebs scores was undertaken to determine those indicators that teacher and students felt gave the greatest number of increases in terms of the children’s responses. Figure 3 displays how teachers reported an increase on each separate indicator. Those indicators that scored the highest in terms of the number of increases were decision making, problem-solving and confidence. The students also reported a number of increases for each indicator, in particular problem- solving, observation and communication and confidence (fig. 4).
Children’s comments

During the focus group interview the children were invited to talk about the lesson and if they had enjoyed the work. It was interesting that several children’s accounts included aspects of both the story and the science activity. The support for the science provided by the story is clear from the comments: Bertie Bunnie helped me realise that some things can be made from more than one material, like a spoon in the kitchen, metal and plastic and I often spill things at home and now I know never to use a plastic bag again to wipe it up! – Like Naughty Nora.

While all the children seemed to welcome this approach only the older group of children were able to articulate how the story had helped: Yes I like books, because you know what you are going to do and you know what it is about and the story teaches us more stuff. The relevance which this methodology brings to science is clear in the comment.
Comments from the children themselves would support these findings included: I now know why my daddy uses bricks instead of straw.

The view of teachers’ practice obtained from the pre-project questionnaire indicated that their use of books and stories was quite varied and restricted to the use of non-fiction texts. Enquiry-based science was also an area in which the teachers were less confident. The following comments therefore indicate that the project has effectively modelled the merits of this approach and will now influence future teaching intentions: I now feel more confident in using an enquiry-based approach, simply because of the opportunity to observe very good practice. I got to see how the resources and equipment can be easily obtained and I will make even more use of books and stories in my science. I used to use ‘Big Books’ and usually books on facts. Now I will start to use fiction and even poetry.

The data obtained from both the QLI-ebs and from teachers’ general observations indicate that books and stories greatly enhanced children’s learning environment and supported their development in both science and in language development. We therefore believe that teachers’ greater use of books within their science lessons would address issues regarding the relevance (Murphy & Beggs 2005) and accessibility of science and provide stimulating and motivating opportunities for developing children’s thinking and communication skills. This view is totally consistent with Oliver’s (1999) observation of how science can be given meaning and that literacy skills can be developed in a purposeful context. Questions raised relate to a shared experience of the text, the structure is already in place and an understanding of science can be developed through dialogue. Indeed the case for this potential to development language has been recently highlighted by Keogh and Naylor (2007) and Goldsworthy (2004). However the use of books and stories in science lessons still remains quite low (Murphy & Beggs, 2005) and may, as suggested by Asoko (1997), be incidental to, rather than the focus of, their science activity.

We therefore recommend that teachers, already aware and skilled in the use of books and stories, extend these approaches to enquiry-based science. We feel that this relatively minor modification of current practice could yield maximum benefits in terms of children’s disposition to and engagement with learning. We hope that these and other findings will be effective in influencing teachers’ thinking whereby, as Keogh and Naylor (2007) contend presenting possible changes in professional practice as quick, simple and effective, without requiring major shifts in values, beliefs or curricula, makes it much more likely that teachers will take a step in that direction.
In the second phase of the project the teachers will have the opportunity to try out these approaches, with the student teacher playing a supportive role. This ‘scaffolding phase’ should embed this methodology in teachers’ classroom practice and that the opportunities for critical reflection provided by the project should result in better science experiences for their pupils. We feel that children’s basic love of story and enquiry presents teachers with the challenge of how best to harness their enthusiasm and sense of wonder. This task is central to all planning for effective science teaching and is well described by Lemke (2001): If we want to erase the looks of disappointment and anxiety that greet the end of the story and our return to more scientific forms of discourse, we have to work harder to make these strange forms more familiar. We have to unpack and display the organization and logic of scientific ways of using language.


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Figure 1. Teachers’ QLI-ebs mean score before and after intervention

Figure 2. The students’ QLI-ebs mean score at the start of and at the end of the period of intervention

Figure 3. The number of teachers that reported an increase in score for each indicator in the QLI-ebs (n = 6)

Figure 4. The number of students that reported an increase in score for each indicator in the QLI-ebs (n = 10)

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