The Dance of Life

A sandlerling feeds along a beach. Photo courtesy of Cameron Rognan.

This nonfiction article is written for use with upper-elementary students (grades 4-5).  Modified versions are available for students in grades K-1 and grades 2-3, or any student needing a simplified version. As always, consider the reading level and needs of your students when selecting a version for classroom use.

At each grade level, the article is available in three forms. Printable pdf files allow you to print this story in either text or a foldable book format. Your students can listen to the story while they read our electronic book version. Reading strategy templates and related activities provide tips for integrating this story with your science and literacy instruction.

Interested in other nonfiction articles for your students? Browse all twenty sets from the Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears collection on our Stories for Students page!

The Dance of Life

Flesch-Kincaid Reading Level = 5.1

Warm ocean waves crash against the sandy shore. The sun marks the beginning to yet another perfect day. Sunbeams splash across the surface waters. Waves roll up the sloping beach, then slide back down, leaving behind smooth, glistening wet sand.

As the water retreats, tiny animals scurry to bury their sand-colored shells in the sand. These are mole crabs. One is caught and pulled up in a jet-black beak. The hunter, a small dusty-white bird with long legs and delicate feet, scrambles up the beach to escape the waves. As she runs from the water, she swallows a mole crab whole, then turns to look for more. She is a type of shore bird called a sanderling.

You can see sanderlings on the beach in the early morning or late evening. These little birds dance along the water’s edge, daring the waves to catch them. The sanderlings are so swift that they almost always succeed.

This dance is serious business. The mole crabs that the sanderlings catch are critical to their survival. The sanderlings will soon leave this warm beach to journey to a place as cold and bleak as this one is warm and inviting.

Sanderlings are migratory birds. Each spring, they leave beaches in Florida, the Caribbean, and South America and travel to the Arctic to nest and raise their young. Some travel almost halfway around the Earth.

The sanderlings arrive in the far north in late spring, when it is still cold. Sudden storms can chill these tropic-loving birds and freeze their delicate feet. The first few Arctic days are the most dangerous for the weary sanderlings.

But as spring becomes summer the Arctic blossoms with life. Flowers bloom and butterflies visit them frantically. Insects and their larvae burst forth, providing the sanderlings food. Refreshed, the small birds build their nests.

In a world with no trees and few plants, the sanderlings’ nests are simple. Sanderling mothers choose a site near vegetation and water. They form a depression in soft ground with their bodies. Dried leaves plucked from plants form the beds of the nests. Mothers lay three or four spotted eggs, then huddle to keep the eggs warm.

Both mother and father help protect the eggs from the cold Arctic air and the foxes and jaegers (hunting birds) that would make the eggs a meal. About 24 days after they’re laid, the eggs hatch. The parents and chicks stay in the nest for only about 12 hours, and then head to the water’s edge to feed.

There’s a lot to teach young sanderlings, and little time to teach it. The parents teach the chicks to find food and avoid danger. The chicks grow and learn quickly. After just two weeks, the chicks begin to fly.

Amazingly, one thing the parents don’t teach their chicks is where to go next. The Arctic summer is short, and the birds must return to their warm southern beaches before winter. Soon after the chicks begin flying, the adults depart. But the chicks are too weak for such a long flight so soon. Four to six weeks later, with no adults to show them the way, the chicks begin their own long journey to beaches they’ve never seen.

How do the chicks do it? How do they know to fly south toward the warmth of the sun? How do they know to hug the shoreline, avoiding the mainland and the open ocean? Quite simply, they are born with it. As the cold and darkness of November once again grip the north lands, the young sanderlings head for the warm parts of the world, where sunshine and surf will provide food and companionship for many months.

Most young sanderlings stay in the sunny south for a full year to feed and grow. But then, these young birds return to the faraway land of snow and ice to take part in the dance of life.


jaeger: a hunting bird that lives in the Arctic

migratory: animals that move from one place to another seasonally

sanderling: a bird that lives on beaches in the fall and winter and in the Arctic in the spring and summer

Modified versions of this text are available for grades K-1 (Flesch-Kincaid Reading Level = 1.8) and grades 2-3 (Flesch-Kincaid Reading Level = 3.1). See below for links to all three versions in text, book, and electronic book forms.

Printable Files

Print the text-only version of this article for grades:
Print book versions of this article for grades:

Notes for assembling the books:

You can put this book together a couple of different ways. You can print out the pages, cut them in half and then order the pages back to front. Fold the stack in half and then staple the spine of the book. Pairs of pages can then be stapled or glued along the right edge.

You can also assemble the book as a foldable book.

To assemble the book this way, print the four pages and align the document pages so that the following book page numbers are in the lower right-hand corner: front page, page 6, page 2, and page 4. (The cover page should be on top and page 4 on the bottom.) Set your copier to copy single pages into double pages and run the four document pages in the order specified. Cut along the dotted line in the center of the double-sided page, place the book pages in order, fold, and staple along the spine.

Electronic Books

The Dance of Life

Grades K-1 Electronic Book
Articulate Version
Flash Version

Grades 2-3 Electronic Book
Articulate Version
Flash Version

Grades 4-5 Electronic Book
Articulate Version
Flash Version

In the Articulate version, click on the small arrow at the top of each page for the narration. The large arrow at the right will take you to the next page.

In the Flash version, the play button (in the top right hand corner) will play an audio file of the text on that page, while the pawprint (bottom right hand corner) will turn to the next page. Please note that the audio files take a moment to load on each page. Once the file has been loaded, a play button will appear in the top right hand corner of the page. To minimize the delay on each page, you can open the file and read through the article first. Once each page’s audio has loaded, it remains loaded until you close the browser window. By preparing the article ahead of time, you can have students start at the beginning of the book and read without delays. If you don’t have Flash, you can download it for free from the Adobe web site.

QAR Literacy Set
This set includes three levels of e-books and foldable PDF booklets for grades K-1, 2-3, and 4-5, plus an article on the reading strategy of questioning and a printable PDF activity template for students.

Reading Strategy Templates

The article provides an opportunity for students to practice asking and answering questions. The following template can be used in conjunction with “The Dance of Life” and “Sanderlings: Traveling Birds.” For more information on this strategy, please see “Questioning to Understand Content Text.”

QAR Template
Students label questions with one of the four QAR types (Right There, Think and Search, On My Own, or Author and Me) and then answer using the text.

Related Activities

Arctic Terns From North to South (Grades K-2)
The arctic tern is an amazing migratory bird, traveling over 22,000 miles in a year from the Arctic to the Antarctic and back again. Students will map this bird’s migration route and consider why it wants to migrate so far. They will conclude by writing paragraphs describing the arctic tern’s migration route and explaining how they think the bird knows when it’s time to migrate.

Arctic Tern Migration Simulation (Grades 3-5)
Students create a model arctic tern using patterns and heavy card stock. They simulate fishing, nesting, and migration using their models.

This article was written by Stephen Whitt. For more information, see the Contributors page. Email Kimberly Lightle, Principal Investigator, with any questions about the content of this site. The content of this page was updated in June 2020.

Copyright February 2009 – 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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