A House of Snow and Ice

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 comprehension strategies and related activities provide suggestions 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!

A House of Snow and Ice

Flesch-Kincaid Reading Level = 4.8

You’re a traveler, a hunter on the cold arctic ice. You’ve been pursuing seals for many hours, and now you must rest.

But the ground around you is frozen. There are no trees anywhere. The wind is bitterly cold. Your survival depends on shelter. What will you do?

If you are an Inuit hunter, you might build an igloo. An igloo is a shelter built from snow and ice.

Not all the people of the Arctic built igloos. The Inuit people of Northern Canada built them. Igloos were never permanent houses for the Inuit. Instead, a large igloo might house one or more families in the cold winter months. Tent-like houses sheltered those same families in the summer.

Today the Inuit live mostly in wooden houses. But Inuit hunters, traveling far from their homes, still build igloo shelters. Igloos raise an interesting question. Why a house of ice?

There are several reasons that an ice house works surprisingly well. First of all, the ice blocks out the chilling wind. Second, ice is good at trapping heat. We say that it is a good insulator. A small igloo with a candle inside, or even just the body warmth of the inhabitants, can stay surprisingly warm.

Have you ever wondered why a blanket can keep you warm? After all, a blanket doesn’t make its own heat. By wrapping yourself in a blanket, you are capturing the heat made by your own body. That heat can keep you warm even if the air outside the blanket is very cold.

An igloo works in the same way. By trapping your own body heat, or the heat produced by even a small burning lamp, the inside of the igloo can stay much warmer than the outside.

This heat starts to melt the inside of the igloo. That might seem like a bad thing. But in fact as the inside walls of the igloo start to melt, they come into contact with the snow and ice closer to the outside of the igloo. This colder snow and ice cause the water to refreeze. In this way the walls of the igloo start to change from snow, which can be weak, to ice, which is much stronger. A well-built igloo is strong. A grown man can stand on top of the igloo without causing it to collapse.

So how does one build an igloo? Start with blocks of well-packed snow. The Inuit builder cuts these blocks using a sharp knife. The knife might be made of bone, stone, or metal. Next, the builder places the first circular ring of blocks on a firm, level patch of icy ground. When the first ring is complete, the builder starts on the second ring.

Now the real magic happens. The Inuit builder knows how to tilt the second row inwards, just a little, so that fewer blocks are needed for the second row than for the first. Think about a circular race track. If you race on the inside of the track, you run a shorter distance than if you race on the outside of the track. In the same way, as the walls grow upward, and as the “circle” of the igloo gets smaller, it needs fewer blocks.

As the wall grows, the blocks begin to arch together. By carefully fitting the blocks together, the skilled Inuit builder keeps the blocks from falling in. Finally, the builder places the key block on the very top of the igloo. Into this key block the builder might cut a hole. The hole lets out smoke from a fire.

The door of the igloo is large enough to crawl through. Animal furs across the opening of the igloo keep out the cold wind. Inside the igloo, the builder and perhaps one or two other hunters may stand up. They might build a fire. The hunters place animal furs on the icy floor of the igloo to serve as beds. They might tell stories, or plan their next day on the ice. Once the hunters have rested, they will leave their igloo behind and continue their hunt.

The Inuit have hunted with the help of igloos for thousands of years. Today, as temperatures in the Arctic go up, some groups discover that the ice is too thin and the snow is too rare to build igloo shelters. Not only that, but the animals that the Inuit have hunted for many generations are growing rare. Hunters are in danger because thinner ice can break. New animals, creatures the Inuit have never seen, are appearing. Soon the hunters may decide that their hunting trips to the ice are too risky. They may stop making these trips; they may stop building houses from snow and ice. A way of life, and a place to live, could soon disappear forever.


generations: time it takes for groups of people to grow up and have children, counted as 30-35 years

igloo: a shelter built out of snow and ice

inhabitants: people living in a place

insulator: a material that traps heat

Inuit: people that have lived in the Arctic for thousands of years

Modified versions of this text are available for grades K-1 (Flesch-Kincaid Reading Level = 1.9) and grades 2-3 (Flesch-Kincaid Reading Level = 3.2). 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

A House of Snow and Ice

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.

Literacy Set
This set includes three levels of e-books and foldable PDF booklets for grades K-1, 2-3, and 4-5.

Reading Comprehension Strategies

This month, we focus on metacognition, reflective thinking that is the foundation for all other reading comprehension strategies. Read our Literacy Content Knowledge article to learn more about metacognition and how you can use “A House of Snow and Ice” as an opportunity for students to practice metacognitive thought.

Related Activities

Students may have difficulty visualizing an igloo or understanding how the melting and refreezing of the walls strengthen the structure. This science activity models the construction of an igloo fairly accurately and addresses both challenges.

Make a Model Igloo
The most accurate of the models highlighted here, this lesson involves building an igloo from ice cubes. Salt and a “slush” mixture are used to help cement the blocks together. Note that access to a freezer for periodic refreezing is required.

If you don’t have access to the needed equipment, you can still help your students visualize an igloo and understand its construction using one of the craft models below. A separate science activity involving the melting and refreezing of ice could help connect the craft model to the scientific principles at work in an actual igloo.

Snow Lessons and Activities
This page from Education World includes a variety of snow-related lessons and links. See the first section (Let’s Rub Noses) for directions on building a large model igloo using 200 plastic gallon jugs. Read a short article about a first-grade teacher who built one in her classroom.

How to Make a Marshmallow Igloo Craft
A smaller craft project using a Styrofoam cup as a base and mini marshmallows to represent the blocks of snow.

Sugar Cube Igloo
Use sugar cubes to build a small model of an igloo.

Directions for building a papier-mâché igloo.

Igloo 101
This interactive activity from NOVA challenges students’ knowledge of igloo construction. The quiz format includes questions concerning where igloos were traditionally built, the best type of snow for building, and the shape on which these traditional Canadian Inuit structures were modeled. Detailed explanations provide further insight into how these ingenious snow shelters enabled entire families to survive the brutal Arctic winters.

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 July 2020.

Copyright December 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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