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Talking Science

Four-Year-Olds “Talking Science”

Science has traditionally been taught as a body of facts and a set of processes. This type of teaching depends on verbal transmission – students reading textbooks and listening as teachers lecture. However, we know that young children’s language and literacy skills are not developed enough to learn in this way.  So it makes sense that instruction in science has traditionally not been introduced until third grade, and then only to a limited extent.

Beginning in the early 2000s, there was a radical reversal in how scholars and policy makers conceived of science education.  Gone was the position that students had to LEARN science in order to (eventually) DO science, to be replaced by the idea that students should DO science in order to LEARN science.  (See article published by the National Research Council.) This emphasis on learning through doing is consistent with how preschoolers are known to learn best.   In terms of learning science content, preschool children are intrinsically motivated to learn about their everyday world.  In terms of learning science processes, preschoolers are beginning to develop and use the cognitive and language abilities that form science process skills.  These include observing, describing, comparing, classifying, predicting, causal reasoning and discussion.

Many people may doubt four-year-olds’ ability to use the cognitive and language skills associated with science. However, young children can clearly be seen to DO science in ScienceStart! classrooms.  Part of this “doing” involves developing and practicing science discourse – that is, conversations about predictions, comparing predictions to finding, debating whether or not conclusions are supported by facts and evidence.  This type of conversation occurs in ScienceStart! classrooms everyday, albeit at an age-appropriate level.  In the following exchange, the preschool teacher initiates and supports a conversation about whether a “lifelike” puppet might be a “real” rabbit.  During this conversation, the children – all four-year-olds – actively engage in science discourse:  they present evidence, argue against evidence provided by another speaker, use recently learned facts about living things to justify their conclusions, and so forth.

Teacher suggests that the puppet they have been playing with is alive.


Kenasia: This…. Look.  See?  You see this moving? Provides evidence in response to teacher’s question (showing knowledge of having learned that living things move).
Teacher: Yes. That’s why I think it might be real.


Challenges K’s evidence.
Kenasia: This is my hand moving.


Supports original evidence in face of challenge.
Teacher: It is? Oooh!  It’s your hand moving?


Accepts evidence as relevant.
Kenasia: Yeah.
Teacher: Go ask Thomas and Ramon what they think.  Ask them if they think it’s alive.


Urges student to seek more data in the form of input from other students.
Kenasia takes the puppet to where Thomas and Ramon are playing with trucks.


Kenasia to Ramon: You think this is real?


Asks another student’s opinion (collects additional data).
Ramon: No, that’s a puppet.


Offers opinion, providing additional data for Kenasia.
Kenasia to Thomas: Do you think this is real? Asks another student’s opinion (collects additional data).
Thomas: No.


Provides a claim/opinion, providing additional data for Kenasia.
Teacher to Kenasia: Ask them why?  They’ve got to give you a reason.


Teacher coaches Kenasia to ask the boys to explain their opinions.
Kenasia to both: Why?  Why did you say it’s not real? Following the teacher’s advice, Kenasia the boys for an explanation.
Thomas to Kenasia and Ramon: Because, because…this is… that’s a puppet.


By simply stating that it is a puppet, Thomas leaves unsaid that by definition puppets represent living things but are not themselves alive. Thomas knows this at an implicit level, but no doubt lacks the vocabulary and discourse skills to make it explicit.

This answer is correct but bypasses the deeper question of the evidence for Thomas’s claim.  This deeper evidence would include reference to the characteristics of ‘real’ animals that the class has been investigating (e.g., growth, movement, & reproduction).



Ramon takes the puppet from Kenasia, turns it upside down, and shows it to her, putting his hand inside.






Look, there’s a hole in the bottom and it doesn’t have blood.


Explains his claim by using a concrete demonstration along with a statement that implies that animals DO have blood and DO NOT have holes in their bottom.
Kenasia grabs the puppet from Ramon and puts her hand inside.


Kenasia to Ramon: Because there’s my hand moving it.


Kenasia returns to her original claim that the puppet does not move independently
Ramon to Kenasia: That’s a puppet…


Restates that it is a puppet, implying that it therefore cannot be alive.
Kenasia: Thomas, why do you think this is not real?


It seems that Kenasia realizes that Ramon has provided relevant evidence but that Thomas has not yet done so.  So, Kenasia prompts Thomas to provide information beyond ‘it’s a puppet.’


Thomas: Because they (puppets) don’t…they don’t walk.  And they don’t make babies.  They don’t make babies.


Thomas describes two characteristics of living things, providing a deeper and more accurate explanation for his earlier claim that the puppet was not real.
Teacher: Kenasia, What kind of reasons did they give you?


Teacher prompts Kenasia to report the boys’ reasons, allowing an opening for Kenasia to also evaluate the relevance of those reasons.
A different girl responds to the teacher: They said because they don’t walk, because they don’t make baby rabbits.


Until now, this girl has observed but not actively participated.  In responding to the teacher, she indicates careful and accurate observation of the interactions and also an understanding of the defining characteristics of animals.


As preschoolers develop language, they all use language to manage their social interactions.  So-called “school language” goes beyond social exchanges to deliberately and clearly  “exchange information.” Because the skills representing “school language” are rarely taught in school, children who do not learn this type of information-bearing language in the home may face difficulties when they encounter it in school.

This short transcription from a typical day in a ScienceStart! classroom shows young children learning and using “school language” in preschool.   ScienceStart!’s focus on science content sets up a situation where “school language” is required, and the children respond by learning to do so.   With appropriate teacher support – asking questions, prompting actions, challenging assumptions, and so forth – young children are highly capable of “Talking Science” as they draw on their knowledge base to ask and answer questions about the meaning of the concept “alive.”

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