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Using literacy and science to challenge a science book.

Often, when we teach science, we tell the following story: science is a collection of facts about the world and what we read about science is necessarily true. Yet this story--retold in words or implicit messages time and again throughout a child's education--is actually a misleading one to tell. Scientific knowledge, like any other body of knowledge, is socially constructed and thus subject to influence by people's beliefs, norms, and practices (Latour & Woolgar, 1986; Longino, 1990). Books and other texts about science, then, construct the world in particular ways. If readers take science texts to be necessarily true, they may reinforce ways of knowing about the world that are incorrect or disempowering (Hall, 1998). Thus, science texts, like all other texts, need to be critically analysed for the ways in which they position people, other subjects, and reality (Bull & Anstey, 2007; Freebody & Luke, 1990).

The trick is to teach science at all levels of instruction not only as a story about how science can organize and enhance our understanding of the world, but also as a story of knowledge, communicated through text, that is subject to error, oversight, exclusion--even inequity. The example we share in this article elaborates how a 3rd-grade classroom was introduced to the simple notion that science books can be wrong, and was further asked to consider how and why this could be. This introduction begins with a planned interaction between the children and a book containing an error, and proceeds similar to the workshop model described by Story and Sneddon (2008), detailing specific steps the classroom teacher, Mrs Jo Anne Deshon, used to scaffold children's critical analysis. The trade book was situated in the context of an investigation about rocks and minerals, and the book was initially selected to extend children's learning through hands-on exploration. In sum, what we suggest here is that science books containing errors may be especially helpful in providing important content and literacy learning opportunities (Brickhouse & Lottero-Perdue, 2007).

Finding the mistake

This episode occurred in the midst of a three-year investigation of the ways science trade books can be integrated into inquiry-based instruction to enhance learning (see also Cervetti et al. 2006). Mrs Deshon's classroom of 25 children was one of five that was a venue for this research. As part of this project, we planned to use pages 16 and 17 of the book, Let's Go Rock Collecting (LGRC), to extend children's learning about the hardness of minerals (Gans & Keller, 1997). On these pages were pictures of minerals along Mohs' Scale of hardness from 'SOFT' to 'HARD' (i.e., from a value of 1 to a value of 10) with accompanying text describing the scale. Minerals included talc (score of 1), fluorite (4), quartz (7), and diamond (10). Prior to introducing this excerpt, students had learned about the differences between rocks and minerals, and had performed scratch tests in an attempt to order the hardness of four minerals: gypsum, calcite, fluorite, and quartz. The results of scratch tests on fluorite and quartz samples were difficult to interpret, leaving the relative hardness of these minerals in contention amongst the students. Mrs Deshon referred to this as a 'disagreement among the geologists in the classroom, which was eventually resolved when she consulted a field guide for the hardness values and shared what she learned with her students.

Use of the LGRC book would provide further reinforcement for quartz being harder than fluorite. However, its use presented another problem: in the written text accompanying the illustration, the author in LGRC erroneously referred to the hardness of rocks. Part of the text reads:

Talc is number 1 on a scale for hardness of rocks. The scale is called 'Mohs' scale of hardness; and it goes from 1 to 10. Quartz is number 7. Diamonds are number 10. They are the hardest rocks in the world. (Gans & Keller 1997, p.16-17)

This is an error since hardness, especially in the context of Mohs' scale, refers specifically to mineral hardness. Prior to doing mineral hardness tests, the children had learned that rocks and minerals are different, and specifically, that rocks are made of minerals. The text seemed to use the terms interchangeably, and, we worried, our use of it might blur the boundaries between rocks and minerals established earlier in the unit.


Planning for a critical encounter with a science text

We decided to use word processing software to re-write the text, correcting the erroneous use of the word 'rock(s)' throughout, and tape the rewritten text over the writing in the book. Our initial idea was that this would be a subtle correction to enable us to use the text. Maybe the kids would not notice. On the other hand, we also wondered if maybe this was an opportunity for the children to think deeply and critically about both the content and the authority of books.

With Mrs Deshon's help, we designed an interaction that would enable the children to be 'tipped off' about the mistake, yet that required the children to identify and explain the mistake for themselves. Mrs Deshon was to read aloud her original copy of the text, whilst the children read along in taped-over copies. Surely, we thought, the tape would be of great interest to the students--and if they listened and read along carefully, they would hear and see the differences between those text versions. On the day of the reading, we videotaped, audiotaped, and wrote field notes as the events unfolded. In what follows, we use these data to share the events, paying particular attention to the questions that Mrs Deshon asked and the range and nature of students' responses.

The Read Aloud: Children find & explain the mistake

After addressing the disagreement about the hardness of fluorite and quartz, Mrs Deshon presented a poster-sized chart on which the minerals and tools used in the hardness tests were ordered along Mohs' scale. A poster beside it read: 'Hardness is a mineral property--the resistance to being scratched.' Mrs Deshon helped the children interpret the chart, and then shared that it was time to read a section of a book about Mobs' scale. She assigned children to groups to share books, and told the students to turn to pages 16 and 17. As the children opened to those pages, they were immediately perplexed and intrigued by the tape. The room was buzzing with the voices of curious children.

Before reading, Mrs Deshon asked: 'why do you think yours is taped and mine isn't?' The somewhat transparent nature of the taped paper copy enabled the children to see through to what was written underneath, and they used this evidence to answer her question. None asked Mrs Deshon for her copy of the book to compare those side-by-side.

Most of the children who responded suspected that the taped paper either corrected a literary mistake or represented a formatting update by the author. Perhaps the author had been rushing when writing the original copy, offered Aliyah. (1) Others, using 'they' to refer to the authors, suggested: 'they had to shorten it. 'they wanted the sentences to end or begin in a different place, or 'they moved the lines over a bit'. These ideas about writing carefully and editing work are likely to be connected to Mrs Deshon's emphasis on editing and revision in her writing instruction. Two other children probably drew from school writing experiences when they suggested that the author had not made a mistake at all, but that Mrs Deshon added the taped paper because she wanted more detail than the author provided.

Only one child, Rashid, suggested that the mistake that the author had made was about science. Comparing the taped paper copy to what he could see beneath it and to the pictures and numerical values of minerals on Mobs' scale above, Rashid suspected that the author originally and incorrectly indicated that diamond had a hardness of seven.

Almost as soon as the read aloud began, the children noticed the science-related difference: Everywhere the text said 'minerals, Mrs Deshon read 'rocks.' An exchange between Anand and Mrs Deshon exemplifies this:

Mrs Deshon: Are they [the pictures on pages 16 and 17 of LGRC] rocks, Anand? Anand: No, but yours are minerals. We have the same pictures. Not all rocks are hard. Ours says some minerals are hard.

Mrs Deshon: So which one is right? Anand: Ours! Because / these [pointing to the pictures] are all minerals.

Mrs Deshon: Well no wonder they taped over yours. Mine's wrong.

Throughout the conversation, Mrs Deshon asked questions to help the children come to consensus about what Anand shared--that the pictures were indeed, of minerals, and that hardness, as her poster in the front of the room suggested, was a mineral property.

Another issue emerged in the course of this conversation that was connected to both literacy and science. Some of the children suggested that Mrs Deshon's book was, perhaps, still the correct text because, according to Rashid, the title of the book was 'Let's Go Rock Collecting, not Let's Go [Mineral Collecting]'. This led to an exchange about the relationship between rocks and minerals as well as the function of a book title. Three students offered the following throughout this discussion:

Melissa: Oh ... the title is ... Let's Go Rock Collecting ... and the inside is all about minerals. At least this inside. Aliyah: I think this book is wrong because it's--on the next page--it talks about rocks and this talks about minerals and they're kind of different. Chase: ... Rock collecting might cover everything like minerals and rocks.

After eliciting these ideas and clarifying student questions, Mrs Deshon asked: 'What's the difference between a rock and a mineral?' Many children responded that rocks have many ingredients (minerals) and minerals have one. Ultimately, at least one student agreed with Mrs Deshon that perhaps a more apt title for the book would be: Let's Go Rock and Mineral Collecting. Only Chase suggested that the use of the word 'rock' in the title of the book might be inclusive enough to allow for both rocks and minerals to be included in the text.

Critical lessons learned

Beyond using the mistake in LGRC as a tool to reinforce content, Mrs Deshon asked her students to consider:

1. the reason for the mistake ('Why does stuff like this happen?');

2. how we can identify this and other mistakes in science books ('If we're not sure which [book] is right, how can we find out?'); and

3. what approach readers should take when reading about science ('What is the lesson we learned by finding out that there was a mistake?').

The first of these questions was the easiest for students to answer--taking less prodding from Mrs Deshon than the other two. One suggested that the mistake was made due to a lack of knowledge about geology:

Cole: I know why the publisher could have published this book.

Mrs Deshon: Why?

Cole: Because he's not a geologist.

Reflecting on this conversation about authorial authority, Mrs Deshon shared:

We ... talk a lot about author's purpose in reading class: inform, persuade, entertain ... This author would have had 'inform' in his purpose, so he should have been more accurate. I think I wanted kids to understand that many children's authors may be more 'writers' than scientists or geologists and the publisher as well would have never caught the mistake.

Unlike Cole's suggestion about a lack of science knowledge, many other children suggested that the author was careless, inattentive, forgetful, rushed or distracted. As in the pre-read-aloud discussion, these children seemed to use what they knew about the ideally careful, thoughtful, and revision-focused writing process encouraged in writing instruction. Additionally, two children shared that the author may have wanted 'to see if we'd catch the mistake' a purposeful ploy for the lesson in which they were engaged.

At three different points in the post-read-aloud discussion, Mrs Deshon tried to elicit from the students ways in which they might have found the error themselves--perhaps without 'tip offs' like the tape. A challenging question to verbalize, she asked: 'Do you think you could have found it [the error] if I had given you my copy?' Some students said yes, and others said no, and the conversation shifted back to a discussion of reasons why the mistake was made. In her second attempt, Mrs Deshon asked:

... What can we do if we're not sure which one is right? For not sure anyone really answered that question. If we're not sure which one is right, how can we find out? What can we do?

One child offered that perhaps readers could compare the pictures of the minerals on pages 16 and 17 with the written text below. This intra-textual comparison within these pages may have been enough to suggest the mistake. One more attempt at this challenging question elicited the following ideas about how to test the validity of information in a science book:

* ask an expert like Miss Danielle or another teacher who knows about geology;

* ask your parents;

* look at other pages in the LGRC book;

* look in another book;

* look on the Internet, or do a Google search; or

* go to a rock museum.

Mrs Deshon had not only pushed the students to consider that science books might be wrong and to ponder why they might be wrong, but also encouraged students to think of ways to identify mistakes in these books.

Mrs Deshon: ... What is the lesson we learned by finding out there was a mistake? Think about it for a minute before you offer an answer. I'm really glad it happened. I'm glad it happened because I think we just learned a very important lesson.

Laura: That-there are rocks and minerals.

Mrs Deshon: We know which ones are rocks and minerals but that's not the lesson I think we learned by this mistake. I think we knew that before the mistake happened.

Two children first made suggestions for the author -to Take your time and 'rewrite. As for the reader,

the children offered:

* Check what you're reading.

* 'Know your stuff. Know what's right and wrong.'

* 'When you buy a book at the store ... if you think it has a really good title page, look through it first'

* 'If you have a rock book, have a geologist check it'

* 'I think the lesson is that-be careful what you read.'


With scaffolding and guidance, and using their knowledge of science and the writing process, Mrs Deshous students are learning about the importance of calling into question the validity of books and the authority of authors. At some points in the discussion, their knowledge of writing was emphasized (e.g, in their interrogation of the title or suggestions that the author may have been rushing or lacked in detail). In others, knowledge about science (i.e., that rocks are different than minerals) or about who knows science (i.e, geologists, experts, parents, but not publishers) pushed the children to recognize the mistake and to think about what it means to 'be careful what you read.


This publication was made possible by National Science Foundation (NSF) Grant Number HRD 0217144. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the NSF. The authors thank Mrs Jo Anne Deshon for her expert teaching and demonstration of how critical literacy can be an integral part of science instruction.


Brickhouse, N. W, & Lottero-Perdue, P. S. (2007). Constructing critical science and social identities in a girls and boys' summer science book club. In W.-M. Roth & K. Tobin (Eds) Science, learning, identity: Sociocultural and cultural-historical perspectives (pp. 301-323). Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

Bull, G, & Anstey M. (2007). Exploring visual literacy through a range of texts, Practically Primary, 12(3), 4-7.

Cervetti, G. N, Pearson, P.D, Bravo, M.A, and Barber, J. (2006). Reading and writing in the service of inquiry based science. In R. Douglas, M. P. Klentschy K. Worth and W. Binder (Eds), Linking science & literacy in the K-8 classroom (pp. 221244). Arlington, VA: NSTA Press.

Preebody P. & Luke, A. (1990). 'Literacies' programs: Debates and demands in cultural context. Prospect The Australian Journal of TFSOL, 5(5), 7-16.

Gans, R, and H. Keller. (1997). Let's go rock collecting. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.

Hall, K. (1998). Critical literacy and the case for it in the early years of school. Language, Culture, and Curriculum, 11(2), 183-194.

Latour, B, & Woolgar, S. (1986). Laboratory life.: The construction of scientific facts (2nd ed). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Longino, H. (1990). Science as social knowledge.: Values and objectivity in scientific inquiry. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Story K. & Sneddon, M. (2008). Teach them how: Analysing author's craft in middle years literacy classrooms, Practically Primary, 13(1), 40-44.

Pamela Lottero-Perdue is a n Assistant Professor of Science Education at Towson University Towson, Maryland. Drs Nancy Brickhouse & Danielle Ford, are lecturers at the University of Delaware, and Dr JoAnne Deshon is a 3rd grade teacher in Downer Elementary School, Delaware
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Author:Lottero-Perdue, Pamela S.; Brickhouse, Nancy W.; Ford, Danielle J.
Publication:Practically Primary
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2009
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