“The librarian tells me that there have been skirmishes over books, especially on topics we’ve been discussing in class. She and the librarian see this as a problem but not me. I see small steps towards victory with my class. The interest [in Environmental Literacy] is ‘kindled’ and I hope to have a ‘forest fire’ by May.”
— Second Grade Teacher

“Roaches and other small insects continue to lose their lives under the hands and heels of my well-meaning students. How can I change the way they feel about these creatures, especially when their parents feel the same way and have instilled this in their offspring?”
— Pre-Kindergarten Teacher



by Carole Basile and Cameron White

Environmental literacy is not just learning to read and write about the environment; it’s about acquiring knowledge, skills, dispositions, and feelings that transfer to the real world. It’s about developing a concept of literacy that is more global in nature. Environmental literacy is about helping even our youngest citizens gain knowledge, understanding, and wisdom about the world around them. Citizens who respect living things; can learn about the perspectives of others, share their own views, solve problems, make reasonable decisions; and can take appropriate action. In this time of high stakes testing where literacy has become the primary focus in schools today, environmental educators need to continue to find ways of offering the environment as a contextual framework.

In literacy, context is often forgotten in the midst of phonics worksheets and testing. As Coles (2000) suggests, the meaning of literacy is diminishing and the goals are narrowing. “The narrower the goals, the more they reinforce narrow instruction aimed at a narrow conception of children’s education (p. 108)”. This passion and enthusiasm in the early years is what helps encourage students to enjoy reading and writing. Routman (1996) emphasizes that inquiry and language in authentic use is at the heart of curriculum. Meaning and knowledge are constructed from the learner’s experiences. This step will ultimately be important as the child makes decisions relevant to what they study and what they choose to write about as they get older. The goal is to involve students by encouraging the social construction of knowledge through student-centered approaches (Brooks and Brooks, 1993).

The Environment as a Context for Literacy

We propose four components that teachers should think about as they begin to think about the environment as a context for literacy: (1) teaching children the basic science concepts that they need to understand how environmental systems work, (2) nurturing children’s respect for all living things, (3) facilitating the processes of problem solving, decision making, and critical thinking, and (4) developing environmental citizenship.

Teaching About The Environment

During these years, effective environmental literacy development should begin by providing a knowledge base that is developmentally appropriate, but it should also be meaningful and relevant to students and involve them actively. The use of non-fiction is critical here. There is a myriad of basal readers and picture books for children at all levels that are non-fiction and teach children about environmental systems. Observation of nature can be used as a purpose for writing in a variety of genres.

A group of kindergartners did observations in their schoolyards and wrote the following (translated from inventive spelling):

”I found a ladybug. It tickled me. My friend let me have her ladybug. Then I found a doodlebug. Then my Mom said she was going to help me find the bugs.” “A butterfly was going to land on my house. Then there came another butterfly.”

“I saw a bee was eating my little flower. I scared it. There was stiging at me because I scare it.”

“I found a butterfly and he didn’t bite me. He was my friend.”

“A bee was going to sting me. The grasshopper was bouncing in my hose. I saw two ants eating some food.”

Nurturing Respect

Nurturing respect is a critical component in this process. It teaches children to be not only respect and protect living things but to be tolerant of each other. Literature can enhance discussions about honoring living things and working for peace. Read-alouds using books that focused on respect and peace stimulated conversations and reflections like these with young children.

Gabby, age 7
”Yesterday, we were playing outside and we saw a bird. I think it’s called a killdeer. It doesn’t live in a tree; it lives in the dirt on the ground. I was running and my friend and me were playing and I almost tripped over it. People were coming over and it was acting like it had a broken wing. My teacher was telling us to move away from it. If you kill the bird or step on it, or step on its eggs, or smash them, you will be killing the environment because birds are part of all life. If we just watch the animals outside, if we just leave them alone, we’re not trying to mess with them, so we won’t get hurt and they won’t get hurt either. If we bothered plants and animals, we couldn’t admire anything or we couldn’t smell the flowers or have any energy. One time outside in my backyard I saw an orange cocoon. My brother and his friends were poking at it and I asked my mom if they were supposed to be doing that. She told them to leave it alone and go play somewhere else. I told my mom I was helping to save the environment.”

Ignacia, age 5
“Insects are good for dirt, like rain. And like pill bugs and ladybugs, they help everything. They help the leaves from bad insects; the ladybugs eat little insects that are bad. So we have to take care of them and not kill them or give them poison stuff; we have to be nice to them.”

Beverly, age 6
“We’ve been learning and doing things outside. We must catch and release insects we find because if you keep them, they might die. We are writing about what we see. I see a big bird that is black. I hear all the birds singing. I saw a mommy bird go by; it was finding food. I saw it find a worm and take it back to the nest to feed the babies. We caught a butterfly and took it to our class. We are going to release it now. We need to stop killing animals because sometimes they help us. Once my sister was about to step on a caterpillar. I yelled, ‘No!’ and the caterpillar got away. I told her that they can help us. I told my teacher all about it.”

Jonathan, age 7
“Respecting living things means being nice to stuff outside because its nature and you have to take care of it. What if that was you and somebody was bothering you, doing something bad to you. You wouldn’t like it.”

Facilitating Processes

Environmental literacy is more than just reading and discussing. It’s giving children opportunities for examining processes, problem solving and decision-making. Learning occurs when children are engaged in the process; it’s not necessarily the content itself, it’s what children do with the content that facilitates learning. For example, learning the parts of an insect or the five senses becomes meaningful when the children are engaged in the process of the classification, analysis, and synthesis of the data they collected. Students begin to understand issues when they are involved in the issues.

Young children do have their own issues – not global issues like acid rain, global warming, or habitat loss – but little kid issues like: Should I take this lizard or frog home for a pet?, Should I feed the animals I see in the park?, Why do I need to stay on the trails in the nature center?, Why should I turn the lights off when I leave the room or turn the water off after I get a drink?, Why can’t I throw trash down the storm sewer or out in the schoolyard? Reading, writing, and debating the issues with young children can begin to build foundations and practice the skills necessary to examine larger issues later in life right in their own neighborhood or school community.

Developing Environmental Citizenship

There is an old saying, “think globally, act locally”. Young children need to “think locally, act locally”. The process of environmental literacy must lead to citizenship. Community projects can include: creating a new bird/butterfly habitat where children write their plans or write reflective books about the process; writing school community environmental information bulletins, brochures about recycling, water conservation, or energy conservation, building bat boxes or bird feeders and reading “how to’s” and writing about the process or posters; or creating stories or poems for an Earth Day celebration.

This is an example of a book that was written and illustrated by a group of 2nd graders after they created a garden in their schoolyard. This book along with other they wrote throughout the year were placed in their school library for everyone to see and read.

“Proper Planting Procedures for Wildflower Seeds”
Rake the area to get good seed/soil contact. Remove trash and dead grass from the planting area. First you open the seed packages. Then you pour them into a bucket so you can mix them up. You want to mix the little seeds with the big seeds. Pour half of the mixed seeds into a second bucket. Plant the seeds in two directions: north/south and east/west to make sure the entire area is covered. This is called “feed the chickens” method and is done because most of the seeds are so small. It also allows you to see how much seed has been planted and how much seed still needs to be planted. Next lightly rake the area. Next step on the soil to provide good soil/seed contact. Lightly water the seed to provide moisture for the seeds to germinate. Label a planting pot or bucket with the type of seeds planted in the wildflower area. Put potting soil in the pot and add a pinch of seed to the soil. Water lightly. This labeled pot will make identification of sprouting seeds more easy. Continue to lightly water the area until the seedlings sprout and are several inches tall. The End.

Giving Children Voice

If we can successfully use the environment as a context for literacy, we give young children voice – intellectual, emotional, and social voice.

We often read words that we don’t use in every day language, but these words help us in an intellectual way to understand more about what is happening in the world. The vocabulary that is part of environmental literacy is important and we shouldn’t be afraid to take kids to those levels. It’s fun to hear first graders talk about habitats and symbiosis and find second graders who use words in their writing like recycle, respect, and responsible. It makes them feel smart and gives them language that spurs a higher level of imagination, creativity, and thought.

The intellectual voice allows for the development of critical thinking and problem-solving as children interact with each other, they have more words to use, to express how they feel. The intellectual voice comes from reading and writing about the environment, developing an awareness of what is living around them, showing them how they are part of the ecosystem, and how they affect their world. The emotional voice comes from teaching children to respect living things and developing their passion about protecting and conserving life and natural resources. Giving them the words of feelings, this passion is often transferred home and shared with others. Social voice comes from kids developing their own language, one where they are able to develop their own sense of identity and connection to the world. It embodies a language of both critique and possibility; a language that allows students to locate themselves in history, find their own voices, and establish convictions and compassion necessary for democratic civic courage (Freire and Giroux, 1989). These young children can influence their peers and their families because they have the intellectual, emotional, and social voice — that’s what makes a difference.

Developing Voice through Children’s Literature

As we have seen using children’s literature as an integrating factor can open a new world for literacy learning and teaching. Having literacy discussions within or across grade levels allow teachers to understand what children think about a variety of issues that are meaningful and relevant to them and help children develop their voice about the environment.

The following is a list of suggested children’s literature. This is far from a comprehensive list, but questions following each reference give teachers a look at possible discussion topics.

Baker, J. (1991). Window. New York, NY: Greenwillow.
How has our neighborhood changed? If you could live anywhere, where would it be: country or city? Why?

Bash, B. (1990). Urban roosts. San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club
What are the animals in our neighborhood? How have they adapted to being around people?

Bunting, E. (1991). Night tree. New York, NY: Harcourt Brace.
What are ways we can appreciate mother nature?

Cooney, B. (1982). Miss Rumphius. New York, NY: Viking-Penguin.
What kinds of things can we do to make the world more beautiful?

Fleming, D. (1996). Where once there was a wood. New York, NY: Henry Holt.
How are things in our neighborhood changing? How do you think the changes are affecting the wildlife?

French, V. (1993). Caterpillar, caterpillar. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press.
Why is it important to preserve different plant species? What can happen if we don’t preserve them?

Hoose, P, & Hoose, H. (1998). Hey, little ant. New York, NY: Scholastic.
Should we kill insects or other living things just for fun? Is there ever a time to kill living things?

James, S. (1990). Sally and the limpet. New York, NY: McElderry.
Should we touch or catch animals in the wild?

James, S. (1991). Dear Mr. Blueberry. New York, NY: McElderry Books.
How do we find out about things we don’t know or understand?

Larson, G. (1998). There’s a hair in my dirt. New York, NY: HarperPerennial.
What can we do to find out about the real stories of how nature works?

Lasky, K. (1995). She’s wearing a dead bird on her head. New York, NY: Hyperion.
How can we let others know about things we care about? Is there anything we care about that we would like others to know about?

London, J. (1993). Voices of the wild. New York, NY: Crown.
What is our relationship with other animals and living things?

Mazer, A. (1991). The salamander room. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.
Is it okay to take animals out of the wild? When we take them out of the wild, how can we take care of them?

Peet, B. (1966). Farewell to shady glade. New York, NY: Houghton-Mifflin.
What things do we see changing in our neighborhood?

Ryder, J. (1996). Earthdance. Markham, Ontario: Henry Holt.
How can we learn more about our community and our world?

Schimmel, S. (1993). Dear children of the earth. Minnetonka, MN: Creative Publishing.
What is man’s responsibility to other animals and living things? How can we respect living things?

Stewart, S. (1997). The gardener. New York, NY: Farrar, Starus, and Giroux.
How can we create natural habitats in the city?

Ward, L., & Jacques, L. (1993). A walk in the wild. Watertown, MA: Charlesbridge.
Why is some land protected for refuges or parks?

Wood, D. (1992). Old turtle. Duluth, MN: Pfeifer-Hamilton.
What is our relationship to other animals and living things?

At The End: Teachers’ Voices

Literacy, especially environmental literacy, development means much more than promoting traditional reading and writing skills. In fact, just as important to our kids is for us to allow the connections promoted through the use of the environment as a context. We can’t keep censoring our children’s lives by only providing literature that is bland and writing that is meaningless. We can’t take the chance that they’ll get it sometime, but right now they just have to learn to read and write. They should be learning to read and write about something, why not the environment.

As children are developing not only their intellectual being but their emotional and social being why not facilitate their natural engagement in learning and transfer early on through the integration of the environment. Let’s not just make them literate, let’s make them environmentally literate. But don’t take our word for it, listen to the teachers and children. “As a teacher, I wear many hats. I have enjoyed my new naturalist hat. I plan on wearing it every day of every year. I found that I can start my children on a path to being naturalists too. I now include issue-based literature and challenge the children to think about their actions towards the world and the living things on it. I teach them about their relationships with nature – how they are in the web of life. I don’t just teach them about insects anymore. I teach them about respect for life, no matter how small the creature is. I have shown the children that they can be problem-solvers and be active in doing something that will benefit everyone. The children are not passive listeners but active doers. The classroom environment has changed as well. The children protect living things. They cry out when someone is going to kill a bug. They pick up trash when it is not in its place. I have grown as a teacher and I have seen great growth in the children as well.” “We have come a long way baby since that first day in August. I would love to move up to third grade with my class but can’t. I just hope they will remain conscious of the world around them and will continue to nurture it and in turn spread this belief to others. The have truly become environmentally conscious, stewards of the land.”

Children’s Voices

“I think that the world is beautiful. There are things I can do to make the world more beautiful. One of the things that I can do to make it beautiful is I can plant flowers. I would probably plant tulips and amaryllis just like my father. I would plant them in parks, forests, and gardens (2nd grader).”

“I would make a difference because I would recycle lots of stuff and plant some trees and get some of my friends to help me clean up the city not the whole city some of it and plant more plants and make the world a better place (2nd grader).”

“If I could make a difference I would save energy. If you don’t save energy you might not be able to use it again (2nd grader).”

An Earth Poem (3rd grader)

Every day we leave we have
An opportunity to make this world better by
Recycling and cleaning our streets
Today I did my part, tomorrow
I Have to start again.


Brooks, J. and Brooks, M. (1993). The case for constructivist classrooms. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Coles, G. (2000). Misreading reading: The bad science that hurts children. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann

Routman, R. (1996). Literacy at the crossroads: Critical talk about reading, writing, and other teaching dilemmas. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Carole Basile is on faculty at the University of Colorado at Denver in the Initial Teacher Education program. Cameron White teaches social studies education at the University of Houston.