STEM Tuesday– Awesome Animal Antics– In the Classroom

Help! Help! We need your help! We want to know what would help you most in our second-Tuesday-of-the-month posts.

In case you haven’t noticed, there is a regular structure to our STEM Tuesday posts.

  • The first Tuesday of the month is the book list.
  • The second (this one!) is classroom information.
  • Week three covers writing craft, for writers and teachers of writing.
  • Week four is an author interview and book giveaway.

A different team of writers works on each week. Our second-Tuesday team is trying to figure out what type of classroom support would be most helpful to you, our readers. Would you please take just a moment to answer 4 quick questions  for us? Your survey responses will help us write super-useful classroom guides for you!

****Take Survey Here. Thank You!****

And now, I interrupt this blog post to give you…

The Interruption Construction!*

Sometimes, readers don’t enjoy STEM writing because they find it difficult. STEM writing can be dense, with lots of ideas packed into a single sentence. Fortunately, some of those sentences follow patterns that can help readers sort out the information. One very common structure in science writing is called the interruption construction. This month’s books contain some great examples of the construction using high-interest topics (and high-interest topics are always the best way to teach useful reading skills!)

Consider this sentence, from page 41 of Animal Zombies, which describes the Frilled Shark:

Its 300 teeth, with multiple spikes arranged in 25 rows, are pointed like arrows toward the creature’s throat.

Show that sentence to students, and then block out the “interruption” found between the commas:

Its 300 teeth, with multiple spikes arranged in 25 rows, are pointed like arrows toward the creature’s throat. 

Point out that the information surrounding the commas make a complete thought. The “interruption” consists of extras that the author is throwing in as a freebie, like when you buy a big lotion pump and get an extra little bottle for free. If a sentence with an interruption construction is  overwhelming them with new information, they can read around the comma and then look back to find out what extras the author wanted to add.

Death Eaters has a wealth of these sentences. At the bottom of page 18, there’s an intriguing passage that describes hyenas and wolves. It would be a great text for a class talking about scavengers, and you could throw in a quick introduction to the interruption construction. The first paragraph reads:

Wolves, found in Africa, northern Asia, Europe, and North America, prefer colder climates. Hyenas, which are native to Africa and southern Asia, thrive in warmer areas. These two death eaters are very similar.

Two interruptions in a row! And if students keep reading that short section, they’ll come across two more. You can discuss the first one as an example, have students talk about the next one, and then have them watch for the others as they read.

Finally, Little Monsters of the Sea illustrates a second form of the interruption construction–one that uses dashes instead of commas. Often–but not always–dashes are used to show that the interruption is restating or clarifying the information that came just before. Consider these sentences:

If you require a very specific habitat—if you can’t call just anywhere home—it’s nice to have young’uns who can get up and go find a fresh spot. (page 26)

Animals inherit their DNA—and therefore their characteristics—from their parents. (page 44)

Once again, if a sentence with extras offset by a dash gets too long or too dense, readers can skip the middle part, and go back to it after they have digested the main part of the sentence.

The interruption constructions in these books are fairly short. But in academic text, that “extra” information can get quite long. If students get used to observing the structure in easier, interesting text, they will have the confidence to tackle it when it shows up in more difficult text.

*I believe the phrase “interruption construction” was coined by Zhihui Fang in: The Language Demands of Science Reading in Middle School, International Journal of Science Education, 28:5, 491-520, 2006. (DOI: 10.1080/09500690500339092). If you ever come across Zhihui, please let him know I appreciate his contribution. It’s a great descriptor and helps students grasp the idea quickly!


For more great ways to use these books in the classroom, see the links below for online educator guides and supplementary material.

Eavesdropping on Elephants

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Teachers guide with supplementary videos and activities
The SuperPower Field Guide: Beavers

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A free unit on beavers for grades K-3 that incorporates the book
Backyard Bears

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Teachers guide with prereading, discussion, and extension activities
Penguins vs. Puffins

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Videos and more to go with the book
Smart About SharksSupport Independent Bookstores - Visit Video describing the creation of the book cover
Animal Zombies

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Teachers guide with some unique activities that only require students to read parts of the book
Little Monsters of the OceanSupport Independent Bookstores - Visit A description of the origin of the book and some quick teaching ideas

Jodi Wheeler-Toppen is a former science teacher and the author of the Once Upon A Science Book series (NSTA Press) on integrating science and reading instruction.  She also writes for children, with her most recent book being Dog Science Unleashed: Fun Activities to do with Your Canine Companion. Visit for more information on her books and staff development offerings.

STEM Tuesday
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