The Water Cycle and the Polar Regions: Hands-On Science and Literacy

Diagram showing flow and transformation of water on and above Earth

The water cycle. This diagram is available from the U.S. Geological Survey in a variety of forms and languages.

The water cycle is a wonderful real-world context for teaching the states and changes of matter. Students need to first have hands-on and inquiry-based experiences with each state of matter as well as the state changes of freezing, melting, evaporation, and condensation. In this context, the literacy components (reading, writing, and discussion) are used during investigations and to tie the states and changes of matter together into the water cycle. Children’s literature, graphic organizers, narrative stories, and reader’s theater all help students to link water through its various forms and stops along the cycle.

Many of the lessons featured below involve investigations which can be modified to incorporate science notebooks and expository writing as described in “Science Notebooks: Integrating Investigations.” To do so, teachers need to first identify the investigation’s major concepts and possible investigable questions that target them. Teachers should also consider how they will introduce the concepts to promote critical thinking and lead students to pose investigable questions. Lesson planning templates are often helpful when modifying a lesson in this way. In its Scientist’s Notebook Toolkit section, the East Bay Educational Collaborative provides both a Before-During-After template and a Lesson Planning template that emphasize the integration of science notebooks. You can also use a Science Literacy Cycle Lesson Plan template from the Sacramento Area Science Project to integrate literacy (purposeful reading, productive dialogue, and meaningful writing) with science experiences.

While these lessons include ice and snow in the water cycle, none deal specifically with the polar regions. Once students understand the basics of the water cycle, challenge them to consider the cycle in the Arctic or Antarctica or add simulations and models of the glaciers, ice sheets, and icebergs found in the two regions. We’ve included a separate section with lessons that allow students to investigate glaciers and icebergs, forms of water commonly found in the polar regions (and omitted from typical lessons concerning the water cycle).

For each science lesson, we’ve included the appropriate National Science Education Standards. You can read the entire National Science Education Standards online for free or register to download the free PDF. The content standards are found in Chapter 6.


Water Cycle: Grades K-2

The Wonderful World of Water (Grades K-2)
These activities will help students understand the properties of water as a solid, liquid, and gas. This lesson meets the National Science Education Standards: Science as Inquiry Content Standard and Earth and Space Science Content Standard.

The Mystery of the Sponge (Grades K-2)
Students observe that water has weight and that weight decreases as water evaporates. The changes that occur as a sponge dries on a balance illustrates this concept. This lesson meets the National Science Education Standards: Science as Inquiry Content Standard and Earth and Space Science Content Standard.

Water Magicians (Grades K-2)
Students observe water changing states from a solid to a liquid to a gas. This lesson meets the National Science Education Standards: Science as Inquiry Content Standard and Earth and Space Science Content Standard.

Changing Matter (Grades K-2)
Students will investigate the concept of water changing states. This lesson meets the National Science Education Standards: Science as Inquiry Content Standard and Earth and Space Science Content Standard.

To further integrate literacy skills into these four lessons, try the following:

Rain, Ice, Steam: Using Reading to Support Inquiry About the Water Cycle (Grades K-2)
This unit of study allows students to discover the repetitive cycle of water. Read-alouds introduce the topic of rain; hands-on experiments and classroom centers teach students about the water cycle and how it functions. After exploring the different parts of the water cycle, students demonstrate the knowledge they have gained by working in groups to write and perform a play. This lesson meets NCTE/IRA Standards: 1, 8, 12.


Water Cycle: Grades 3-5

The following seven lessons are meant to be used as a comprehensive unit on the water cycle.

This unit meets the National Science Education Standards: Science as Inquiry Content Standard and the Earth and Space Science Content Standard.

Investigation 1: Where Is Water Found? (Grades 3-5)
Students use 100 pennies to predict and represent the distribution of water on Earth across three categories: freshwater, salt water, and glaciers (ice).

Investigation 2: Why Does a Puddle Shrink? (Grades 3-5)
Students investigate the role heat energy plays in evaporation.

Investigation 3: Condensation Chambers (Grades 3-5)
Students create condensation chambers and observe the process of water condensation on cool surfaces.

Investigation 4: Heat Energy and Water (Grades 3-5)
This activity is designed to develop the concept of heat’s influence on solid and liquid water. The activity should also help students differentiate between heat and temperature.

Investigation 5: The Water Cycle Model (Grades 3-5)
Students observe a model of the water cycle.

Investigation 6: Water on the Move (Grades 3-5)
Students play a game to deepen their understanding of the water cycle.

Water Cycle Celebration
This mini-science fair project summarizes the unit on the water cycle.

To further integrate literacy skills into this unit, try the following:

Water World Story
Students write a story about how a drop of water may have traveled to arrive at the school. In addition, they design a presentation on the water cycle. This lesson meets NCTE/IRA Standards: 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 11, 12.

Integrating Literacy into the Study of the Earth’s Surface
This lesson introduces third- through fifth-grade students to the bodies of water on the earth’s surface, including ponds, streams, rivers, lakes, and oceans. The lesson incorporates the use of science trade books, read-alouds, and dialogue journals, and culminates in a comparative study of the different bodies of water performed in a reader’s theater. This lesson could be modified to focus on the water cycle by incorporating titles from this month’s virtual bookshelf. This lesson meets NCTE/IRA Standards: 1, 3, 4, 5, 7, 11, 12.


Glaciers and Icebergs

Glacial Pressure (Grades 3-5)
In this lesson plan, students model glacial formation through the compression of marshmallows, which represent snow. Students observe the effect of pressure exerted on marshmallows and draw conclusions about pressure exerted on snow. This lesson meets the National Science Education Standards: Science as Inquiry Content Standard and the Earth and Space Science Content Standard.

Modeling Glacier Dynamics with Flubber (Grades 2-3)
This hands-on activity simulates glacial flow. The students use a glacier-modeling compound made from glue, water, and detergent (“flubber”) to predict and observe glacial flow. The students discuss with the teacher how scientists determine glacial flow with real glaciers. The link opens a zipped file that contains three documents: the teacher’s guide, notes, and a worksheet. This unit meets the National Science Education Standards: Science as Inquiry Content Standard and the Earth and Space Science Content Standard.

Modeling Glacier Dynamics with Flubber (Grades 3-5)
This hands-on activity simulates glacial flow. The students use a glacier-modeling compound made from glue, water, and detergent (“flubber”) to predict and observe glacial flow. The students discuss with the teacher how scientists determine glacial flow with real glaciers. The link opens a zipped file that contains three documents: the teacher’s guide, notes, and a worksheet. This unit meets the National Science Education Standards: Science as Inquiry Content Standard and the Earth and Space Science Content Standard.

Do-It-Yourself Iceberg Science (designed for Grades 6-8, modify for K-5)
In this inquiry-based lesson, students will experiment with their own film canister “icebergs” to explore the principles of floating icebergs and ice density. The focus on density and calculating volume is too advanced for most elementary students, but the overall experimental design and ideas for further investigation would be useful for most elementary classes. This unit meets the National Science Education Standards: Science as Inquiry Content Standard and the Earth and Space Science Content Standard.

To futher integrate literacy into these lessons, use the books suggested in this month’s Virtual Bookshelf.


This article was written by Jessica Fries-Gaither. For more information, see the Contributors page. Email Jessica at beyondpenguins@msteacher.org.

Copyright August 2008 – The Ohio State University. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0733024. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. This work is licensed under an Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported Creative Commons license.

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