Telling Insect Tales: Assessing the Effectiveness of

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Telling Insect Tales: Assessing the Effectiveness of Educational Stories Elisabetta Chiappini, Maria Cristina Bertonazzi, Maria Cristina Reguzzi, Amalia Murcio Maghei, Maria Luisa Dindo


s there any reason that learning should be boring and difficult for children? Why not try to catch their attention with something that engages their curiosity and focuses on subjects that fascinate them? There is a way to use children’s own language and way of thinking to teach scientific concepts: “In the light of our experience at school, I can say that little or nothing of a logical explanation is received and retained, while the world of magic, rich in mythological characters and beings, speaks to the children in a language perfectly understandable to them,” says Mara Nardi, who for 40 years has run a nursery school that encourages pupils to have contact with nature (Zaza 2003). Children have vivid imaginations and may have very clear recollections of stories told to them (Ellis 2002). The story can almost be a “surrogate for reality” when the latter is not directly available, a source of experience from which the child learns in a direct way (Kieran 1989). Donovan and Bransford (2005) point out that illustrated stories for children, e.g., “Fish is Fish” (Lionni 1970), are very effective as educational tools, because they transmit basic information to children about the surrounding world, on which future knowledge will be built. These stories are even more useful if, in addition to providing purely descriptive information, they also help children to construct conceptual frameworks. So why not use insect stories to help children learn about and love entomology, and science in general? From an early age, children may be fascinated by insects, which are small, mobile, and often colorful. All of these features have the potential to intrigue children and may transport them to a fantastic world, exciting their curiosity,

which is such an important component of learning that it was considered by Mainardi (1975) a “capital resource of humanity.” Our hypothesis is that contact with this fascinating world of insects may engage children and enable them to face the challenge of learning the complex realities that govern the world of nature. This paper reports on a research project specifically aimed at conveying scientific concepts to children through educational stories and assessing the success of this strategy.

Creating the Stories

Each fictional story is constructed to be scientifically correct. While simplification is necessary to adapt to the child’s level, it is also important to maintain adequate scientific rigor, avoiding excessive trivialization that renders the concept itself meaningless (Harlen and Qualter 2004). The texts are illustrated with drawings suitable for children, but also sufficiently accurate to facilitate comprehension and identification of the insects in their natural environment. The illustrations were painted by an artist working from preserved specimens and photographs, and their accuracy was confirmed by the authors. Each story is supplemented with educational information (yellow pages) in which scientific concepts are defined in age-appropriate language. These concepts are intended to be acquired by the children as they read the story. The stories include “Psofo, Nananana, and Their Friends” (Fig. 1), “Cricri and the Firefly Lucy” (Fig. 2), “Pediculus” (Fig. 3), “How Afidia and Coccinella Saved Aubergine” (Fig. 4), and “Camillo: an Enterprising Caterpillar” (Fig. 5). As can be seen from the titles, each story relates the adventures of

key characters interacting in their specific environments. The characters’ names can be nicknames, common names, or popularized or diminutive versions of scientific names. Nevertheless, in the texts, the scientific names are always presented. In the first story, the key characters are grasshoppers and locusts, but other characters, including a ladybird, are also present. The characters introduce the concepts of species, the exoskeleton, and ecdysis. The second story features crickets and fireflies, who present the key issue of intraspecific communication. Three young lice are the heroes of third story, and as the action moves from the head of a tramp to some children, the story focuses on parasitism and adaptation. The fourth story takes place in a garden, illustrating insect predators and parasitoids, natural control, and equilibrium

Fig. 1. Psofo, Nananana, and their friends: “The little grasshopper was very pretty and all green…”

American Entomologist  •  Spring 2011

2. used previous knowledge to better understand concepts that were introduced later; 3. made associations.

Fig. 2. Cricri and Firefly Lucy: “My name is Lucy; at night, I can make light, too…”

between populations. The fifth story, set in a pond, features ecosystems, habitats, and nurse plants. The book of stories (Chiappini et al. 2006) is accompanied by a booklet addressed to adults wishing to follow the children in reading the stories.

For purposes of assessment, each child was identified by the nickname of an insect he or she had previously chosen. The books were distributed to the children with a blacking-out sheet at the end of the available text (available text included the current story and any stories read previously). Each story was read aloud by a schoolteacher, and the stories were read in the order in which they are published in the book. The

Experimental Protocol

In order to test the hypothesis that children can learn even difficult scientific concepts in a fictional format and without a specific explanation, a qualitative research protocol was implemented to evaluate children’s knowledge of key entomological concepts after they had read the storybook. This aim of the research was to verify the children’s comprehension with particular regard to the degree of their success or difficulty in learning, rather than to target achievement percentages. The study was conducted on children 8–10 years old attending cooperating elementary schools in Northern Italy. A total of 128 children took part in the project. Assessment instruments with open and closed questions were used to ascertain whether the major scientific concepts introduced by the stories had been learned. The assessment forms were of two types: “green” (referring to the stories) and “yellow” (referring to the supplemental information in the yellow pages). The assessment items were designed to determine whether children: 1. could transfer the scientific concepts learned from one story to other animals;

Fig. 3. Pediculus: “Besides Pedi, there were Pido and Chietto…” American Entomologist  •  Volume 57, Number 1

Fig. 4. How Afidia and Coccinella Saved Aubergine: “Afidia raised her body and pierced the nearest aphid…”

participating children were instructed to listen carefully to the reading of the story and follow the reading in their books in order to be able to answer written questions about the story at its conclusion. The first assessment form (green) was then distributed. The children answered these questions without asking the teacher or companions for explanations. However, they were allowed to keep the book and re-read the story while completing the form. Once the work was finished (within a maximum of 45 minutes), each child handed in the form to the teacher. After the green forms had been collected, the children were instructed to read the yellow pages related to the story on their own. When the children were finished reading, the books were collected, and the yellow assessment forms, to be filled in without asking the teacher or companions for explanations, were distributed. Each correct answer scored a “1” while a non-response or a wrong answer scored “0.” Because the goal of the green and yellow forms was to verify the understanding of the scientific concepts, the “1” mark was also given for answers demonstrating that the children had understood a concept, even if the answers were not altogether scientifically precise. The percentage of correct answers for each question was calculated based on the total number of answers (=

number of children who took part in each test). This was done separately for each of the three age groups.

Results and Discussion

First of all, it is worth noting that the children enjoyed the stories, read them with pleasure, and were enthusiastic about the insect world. The more quantifiable assessment results are summarized in Fig. 6 (green forms) and Fig. 7 (yellow forms). Fig. 6 clearly shows that most of the children understood the scientific concepts simply by listening to and reading along with the stories; this was the aim of the project. Fig. 7 shows that assessment results from the yellow pages were also good, especially considering that the children were not allowed to look at the text while answering. As expected, older children demonstrated better comprehension than younger children. In a few cases (e.g., questions 6 and 13 of the green forms and 24 and 25 of the yellow forms), children 8 years old showed a better comprehension than those aged 9 and 10. A possible explanation is that older children were more likely to have misconceptions derived from previously learned misinformation about the concepts investigated. Analyzing the questions with a very low comprehension percentage and numerous wrong answers can lead to some useful considerations. An important distinction must be made between wrong answers attributable to text comprehension versus those missed due to question formulation. Regarding text comprehension, we must consider how children approach the story and learn from it. If the story is absorbing (and we hope it is), they tend to read it quickly and to be empathically involved in it. Children may not stop to reflect on what they read, so their feeling of comprehension must be immediate. In addition, they often attribute

Fig. 5. Camillo: An Enterprising Caterpillar: “The caterpillar was now a wonderful butterfly…” 

Fig. 6. Percentage of correct answers per total number of answers to each question of the green forms for each of the three age groups.

feelings and emotions to the characters in the stories. In doing so, they may develop imaginative, anthropomorphic (and therefore sometimes incorrect) interpretations. Although this imaginative component can lead to misconceptions, it is also something that makes the tale attractive. Therefore, while it is important to encourage imagination, it is also imperative to stress the scientific aspects of each story. When a deeper analysis of the text is required, it may be difficult for children to switch from an intuitive level of comprehension to a conscious evaluation that could lead them to a deeper understanding. Therefore, some incorrect interpretations of the text could depend on the fact that some concepts were not expressed in an age-appropriate way. Some problems of understanding may originate from age-related difficulty in linking concepts that, although expressed in a clear way, are distributed in various parts of the text and require deliberate synthesis of concepts and information. For example, consider question 1 in Fig. 6, referring to the beginning of the story of Pediculus:

  Our hero was called Pediculus humanus. That, to be honest, was rather too grand a name for such a tiny creature. His friends affectionately called him Pedi, also because the second part of his name could hardly become a nickname! They were, as they say, best friends and in fact they all lived on the slightly bald head of a not really very elegant man who lived close to the bridge. You might think of being in the suburbs of a notorious city, what with all the dirt that had accumulated between one hair and the other, but Pedi and his friends were not offended.   In addition to Pedi, there were Pido and Chietto. They were immediately recognizable because, from birth, the three of them had always been together.   One day—just after they had been born—Pedi suggested travelling around

a bit to explore the world and all three got moving, easily passing from one hair to another. On and on they went but they did not see anything at all, just an endless expanse of hair.   “I’m sick,” said Pido. “I will drop stone dead if we do not stop now.”   “Well, maybe the gentleman here below would not even be sorry,” said Chietto. “Anyway, you’re right. I’m so tired that I cannot close my nails and I am in danger of falling at every step I take.”   “You’re weak-kneed! Look at me,” boasted Pedi and climbed up a hair, like a monkey on a palm tree. “Come on! You can see the world from here.”   “What’s it like? Tell us something,” screamed the other two.   “Weeeeeell....I see a pink and shiny plain that seems pretty bleak. I do not think that we could cross it. On the other side, I see an intricate red forest where I think we could move well.”

The question is: “According to you, why does Pedi believe that the three of them will not be able to cross the ‘pink and shiny plain’?” In this case, the answer was not present as such in the text, but the child should understand that the “pink and shiny plain” corresponds to the partially bald head of the character. The child should remember that lice move by using prehensile “nails” (as specified in the text) and then, using

higher-order thinking skills, connect the two facts and realize that if there is no hair, the lice will be unable to travel. This synthesis may be difficult for younger children solely due to their age. In other cases, misunderstanding may have occurred because, in creating the story, some basic concepts were considered to be well known, assuming that they had been previously developed during schoolwork or acquired in daily experience. If, however, they were totally absent from the children’s background, the information connected to them could not be understood. Even when the percentages of correct answers were high, wrong answers provided useful feedback for re-writing the stories. Some wrong answers may have been derived from a superficial reading of the text that may have led to a literal interpretation. In drafting further texts, this difficulty of understanding should be considered and using stock phrases or situations that could create ambiguity should be avoided. Finally, considering the questions with very high percentages of positive answers, we noted that they were generally related to concepts investigated or reaffirmed several times in the stories, and this confirms that text redundancy can be a useful learning strategy. Regarding record form problems, some of the questions were not very clearly formulated or were related to concepts not well highlighted in the texts, e.g., question 1 in Fig. 7. This question refers to the story of Psofo, and asks: “Are insects’ wings only used to fly or can they also be used for other purposes?” This requires the child to connect a concept specified in the educational pages with something that had been told in the story:   Meanwhile, Nananana was sick of thinking about her scythe; if it was there, of course it was useful for something and sooner or later she would find out.

Fig. 7. Percentage of correct answers per total number of answers to each question of the yellow forms for each of the three age groups.

American Entomologist  •  Spring 2011

  At that moment, a big green grasshopper arrived, looking at Nananana with admiration. “Good morning, Miss, can I introduce myself? I’m ...” but before he could finish the sentence Psofo interrupted him: “I do not care who you are,” and was continuing with this rude manner when Nananana interrupted and, glaring at Psofo, stretched out her leg and said, “Nice to meet you, I’m Nananana!” Without knowing why, she began to feel romantic and desired to hear the beautiful song that the big green grasshopper was playing, rubbing his tegmina together.

While the story tells how the “big grasshopper” performs his song with his tegmina, only in the yellow pages is it specified that the tegmina are wings. In some cases, the low percentage of correct answers may not have been due to a lack of comprehension of the text, but to a misunderstanding of the question. This shows that it is necessary to pay close attention to age-appropriate language when preparing the assessment items. These must be simple enough for children to understand them.


In reading and processing the children’s answers, some interesting information emerged about how to improve the texts and the best way of using this tool for teaching, as well as more general considerations regarding how children learn. An educational story is certainly more complex to implement, but has many advantages over a traditional lesson as a tool for learning science: this approach catches the reader’s attention, requires processing and making connections, and offers many opportunities for investigation. During the compilation of a conventional textbook, it is crucial to check the precision of scientific concepts and the clarity of explanations. In our case, the problem was not how to explain concepts, but rather how to create situations in which the concepts explained themselves. In an educational story, it is necessary to make the concepts clear through a sequence of events, taking into account the readers’ ages and their way of interpreting texts. It is also essential to make sure that the texts will not be misunderstood and to anticipate and avoid other possible interpretations of the events (Kieran, 1989). Thus: • a plot must be created that respects the

American Entomologist  •  Volume 57, Number 1

• • • • •

reality of natural phenomena and the organisms involved; humanized characters (who speak) can be used, but not to the extent that the children’s imaginations lead them away from the correct interpretation of the story; the concepts to be communicated should be presented with a focus on the central information, avoiding excessive details that may create confusion; explanations given by the characters should be kept to a minimum, because the intent is not to create a textbook “camouflaged” as a story; clear language and vocabulary understood by children should be used; new, purely scientific terms will be introduced only if they can be made clear and easily understandable; and terminology that is likely to induce the child to anthropomorphize natural phenomena should be avoided.

From this research, conclusions can be drawn about how children learn. These can be useful both in normal school activities and for a more profitable use of the educational story. Children are used to recognizing and dealing with science only when it is traditionally presented in a schematic and didactic way. Young readers may be fascinated by a story, captivated by the succession of events, and fail to dwell on scientific concepts found in the tale. In order to use literature as a tool for learning science, educators must remind children to pay careful attention while reading. The child must have time to reflect, remember, and return to the text and, therefore must be educated in text analysis. Even if this way of teaching may seem arduous, it encourages the development of higher-order thinking skills. To create an instrument such as the educational story, collaboration is necessary among researchers in scientific subjects (relevant to the concepts that will be conveyed), educational specialists, and schoolteachers. The first will create stories that properly express scientific concepts, while the others will ensure that the language and the situations used in the story do not distract the child and engender misconceptions. In the wide field of scientific knowledge, entomology can represent an ideal field for this educational tool, because to most children, insects are mysterious, fascinating creatures with unusual behaviors and fantastic forms.

Acknowledgements We are grateful to Alessandra Chiappini for drawing the pictures, adapting her artistic sense to our scientific needs. We sincerely thank the teachers Elisabetta Bolzoni, Clara Burgazzoli and Paola Plessi of the De Amicis elementary school in Piacenza, and those of the elementary school of Quinzano sull’Oglio, coordinated by Rita Scaglia and Claudia Andreoletti. We also wish to thank the pupils of the classes III B, IV A, and V A of Piacenza, and those of the classes III, IV, and V of Quinzano sull’Oglio who participated in this research with such enthusiastic goodwill. We are grateful to the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore that partially funded the production of the book of entomological stories and to the publisher Alberto Perdisa, who appreciated our work. 7

References cited

Chiappini E., Reguzzi M.C., Dindo M.L., Bertonazzi M.C., Murcio Maghei. 2006. Psofo, Nananana e i loro amici. Bologna: Alberto Perdisa Editore.* Donovan, M. S. and J. D. Bransford (Eds.). 2005. How students learn: story, mathematics, and science in the classroom. Washington D.C.: The National Academics Press. Ellis, B. 2002. How I learned the importance of storytelling in environmental education. Available via http://www. Accessed 8 March 2008. Harlen, W. and A. Qualter. 2004. The teaching of science in primary schools. (4 Rev.). Abingdon: Taylor & Francis Ltd. Kieran, E. 1989. Teaching as Story Telling: An Alternative Approach to Teaching and Curriculum in the Elementary School. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. Lionni, L. 1970. Fish is Fish. New York: Pantheon. Mainardi, D. 1975. Prefazione. in L. Konrad, L’anello di Re Salomone (pp. 5-11). Milano: Fabbri Editore.* Zaza, M. C. 2003. C’era una volta un maggiolino. Gardenia, 299 (suppl. Vivere country), 49-55.*

Elisabetta Chiappini is associate professor at Instituto di Entomologia e Patologia Vegetale, Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, Piacenza, Italy. M. Cristina Bertonazzi and M.Cristina Reguzzi are amateur scientists who work at Instituto di Entomologia e Patologia Vegetale, Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, Piacenza, Italy. Amalia Murcio Maghei is lecturer at Facoltà di scienze della formazione, Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, Piacenza, Italy. Maria Luisa Dindo is research associate at Dipartimento di Scienze e Tecnologie Agroambientali, Alma Mater Studiorum Università di Bologna, Italy.

*Translation by Dr. Cristopher Wellington.

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