Both the new Common Core State Standards in English/Language Arts and the soon-to-be-released Next Generation Science Standards emphasize competencies in nonfiction literacies: the CCSS in its bold push for a central role for informational text in reading instruction, and the NGSS in its just-as-purposeful spotlight on the critical reading, writing, visual, and oral practices of scientific inquiry.
I’m thrilled that these developments mean more opportunities to expose children to high-quality nonfiction books and the scientific practices that can grow from them. Learning from texts and learning with texts should not be separated into reading hour and science time. Evidence gathering and evaluation of scientific claims can happen during discussion of an informational text; comprehension and text analysis can happen during an inquiry-based scientific experiment. Both domains can include consideration of visual representations of information, critical examination of author intent, and/or reasoning, and can promote excitement, wonderment, and engagement with scientific content.
There are good books out there now (hopefully, they will remain in print!), but we need more — especially more of high enough quality and in the full range of content areas covered in the NGSS. Some areas flourish: Scientific investigation on topics like biodiversity, climate change, or dinosaurs can rely on a host of books and other media that provide opportunities for cross-source comparisons, both of the science content and the genres in which this information is represented. However, elementary teachers planning a unit in an area like the physical sciences are stuck with fewer options, and nearly all are expository textbook-like volumes or collections of activities (often mislabeled “experiments,” but that’s another topic). Hopefully these new standards will create opportunities for writers to produce a multitude of science titles that support the various critical literacy practices required by the CCSS and that cover the range of content areas required by the NGSS. Not all books on force and motion need to include activities, and excellent photography shouldn’t be limited to animal books.
Media specialists and librarians will play a critical role in supporting quality instruction. Integration challenges teachers, at the primary level where science may not be a teacher’s specialty, and at the secondary level where science is taught in the extremes of textbook memorization or hands-on learning only. I’m worried that as we move forward, enterprising publishers will entice schools with complexity-reducing “kits” that erase all the potential in the standards. Beware the neatly packaged curricula that pair short and meaningless hands-on activities with literature only tangentially related to science, or poorly written nonfiction “supplements” to science units — these do not promote scientific literacy as intended in the standards. Instead, go for the best in children’s nonfiction writing and use it to inspire critical reading and scientific reasoning across the school day.
From the January 2013 issue of Nonfiction Notes from the Horn Book.