Review: Science through Stories

cover of Science Through Stories

This review of Science Through Stories appeared in issue 10, Winter 2015/2016 of Journal of Emergent Science, and was written by Amy Strange. Many thanks to this fantastic journal!

Talk for writing’ has widely accepted benefits for literacy teaching, so it is not so surprising, though gratefully received, that the idea has caught on throughout the curriculum, and Science Through Stories is the answer for science! It is the result of collaboration between Chris Smith, one of the pioneers of Storytelling Schools, and Jules Pottle, a primary science specialist teacher. The book aims to use stories as a foothold to engage children in science, by combining the scientific explanation with storytelling.

The book follows the Storytelling Schools model, which is outlined in some depth in the first twenty pages, so that even those who have never encountered the approach are tooled with the relevant strategies for making the stories work in the classroom. The main idea is that the stories are told rather than read by the teacher, and the children learn the stories verbally and take ownership of them. In this way, they become acquainted with the scientific concepts and vocabulary in a context-driven manner.

Those who are familiar with a storytelling approach will recognise the format of the book, which is consistent across the Storytelling Schools Series; however, this volume gives much more structure and ideas for using the stories than its predecessor. Each story is prefaced with a short introduction including a plot synopsis and the most obvious relevant science links. This makes it quick to choose a story, as you don’t have to read each in detail first. The introduction also outlines any relevant cross-curricular links; for example, the story ‘Little Rabbit Goes Home’ can be used to teach about sound, animal habitats, or as a fable for self-esteem! Following each story there are ‘Top Tips for telling’, which are ideal for less experienced storytellers, but also give a good emphasis on the drawing out of the science most effectively. The authors then provide ways to work with the story using the Storytelling Schools method and the directly and indirectly linked science. Pottle’s teaching expertise is clear in the numerous suggested practical science activities that can be used with the story, and a detailed page on how other curriculum areas can be associated.

There are over 25 stories in the book, arranged into biology, chemistry and physics chapters, and then into a topic within each of these disciplines. The stories cover the main areas taught in primary school science, but there is no formal mention of curriculum objectives; the book should stand the test of time. There is also no ordering by Key Stage or year group, as the stories are meant to be adapted and are versatile enough to be used across the school; however, for speed of use, within each chapter the stories are in ‘general order of difficulty’.

The stories are a range taken from history, biography and world cultures as well as a huge proportion that have been made up by the two authors. Teachers are also encouraged to adapt stories from the book, or even make up their own story, to either access a particular teaching point or engage a particular group of children. For example, when teaching electricity, it was not too difficult to modify ‘The Lighthouse Keeper’s Son’, which is the inspiration for the cover of the book, to give it a Christmas twist while using the same scientific concepts to make it relevant to the term of teaching and the mood of the class.

Some of the stories end in a problem, which the children are tasked to solve, others open up questions for discussion, but in all the stories the science is not fully explained, so there is plenty left for discussion, exploring and, ultimately, learning. It may be argued that the time taken to tell and learn a story takes away time from activities and, while it undeniably does take time to use this approach, that time is not wasted as scientific concepts and understanding are being developed through the verbalisation of the story. Indeed, a particular strength of the book is the repetition of scientific vocabulary, which the authors weave into the telling. These keywords become part of the children’s retelling and, in the same way as talk for writing, the words become familiar and understood. One example is ‘The Children of the Water God’, which primarily covers the water cycle and includes the terms ‘evaporate’ and ‘water vapour’.

It is certainly true that science taught skilfully does not ‘need’ stories but, if they help children to be engaged and have a context for understanding, they are more likely to access deeper learning, which jumping ahead to practical activities may not achieve for all students.

It is refreshing to see a book that puts science at the heart of learning, and links other subjects to the science, rather than the other way around. Schools that are already embracing the Storytelling Schools approach will find this book an integral part of science teaching, but even schools who have never ventured into the approach will find there is plenty to be gained by accessing this book, and teachers should feel hugely supported using the stories thanks to all the extra material.

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