Integrating Science and Literacy Through Novel Studies

You can use "The Toothpaste Millionaire" and other outstanding fiction to integrate science and literacy.

By Jennifer Sinsel


Using Novels With Science

When someone decides to purchase a car, that person takes many factors into account. They may read about different brands of vehicles on the Internet, calculate monthly payments, research “eco-friendly” manufacturers and carbon emissions, and write an email to their brother asking for advice. While they are doing each of these things, they may not consider that they are integrating all the subjects they studied in school to solve the problem of which car to purchase – yet when we teach reading, math, science, and writing, we often teach them as isolated subjects. 

Students need to see the relevance in what they’re learning, and this can often happen through subject integration. A great way to do this is through novel study. There are many excellent choices out there, but one of my favorite novels is “The Toothpaste Millionaire,” by Jean Merrill. It is the story of Rufus, a sixth grade boy who believes that toothpaste costs too much, so he decides to start his own toothpaste business. From a humble beginning using baking soda and baby food jars, he ends up as a successful entrepreneur, complete with stockholders and mechanized equipment. Interdisciplinary opportunities abound with this novel, including entrepreneurship, marketing, the science of making toothpaste, and the social issues associated with race in 1972 when the novel was published (Rufus is black, while his best friend and business partner is white).

While reading the novel, I divide my students into groups of eight to ten and give them the following task:

Your group is a company that plans to enter the toothpaste market. One or two people in your group will be assigned to each department to handle the production of a new brand of toothpaste. Please read the job openings carefully, as you will be applying for one of these positions by submitting your resume. No sick days are allowed – if you are absent, you will receive a pay deduction from the accounting department. At the end of the project, your group will present your product to the rest of the class and submit a portfolio with all required assignments for a grade. 

Job Requirements:

Company President

  • All teams report directly to the president
  • Understand the job descriptions and assignments of all teams. Responsible for each team’s final product
  • Meet daily with each team and document all progress for final portfolio
  • Develop timeline for each team

Research Scientists

  • Research toothpaste recipes and determine which recipe will be used
  • Create actual toothpaste product
  • Document experimental results for final portfolio
  • Submit purchase orders to accounting

Industrial Engineers

  • Develop safety procedures for research scientists and ensure that proper safety procedures are being followed
  • Decide how to package the toothpaste and create packaging
  • Determine how much it will cost to produce 10,000 tubes of your company’s toothpaste
  • Determine the type and number of ingredients needed to produce 10,000 tubes of toothpaste


  • Research yearly average salaries for each position in the company
  • Pay all company employees with a company check each week for two weeks
  • Document all expenditures for each team
  • Approve purchase orders for each team and makes sure each team stays within budget


  • Conduct focus group surveys to determine what the consumer wants in a good toothpaste
  • Develop name and logo for the product
  • Research average costs for other products on the market and determine cost for this company’s toothpaste
  • Create a commercial script to advertise your company’s toothpaste. 
  • Bonus Points: Recruit actors from within the company and videotape or podcast your commercial!

During the two-week unit, students utilize math, science, social studies, art, reading, writing, and social skills.  “The Toothpaste Millionaire” becomes much more real to them, and they have a purpose for learning.

For other novels that lend themselves well to subject integration, especially in science, check out the following lesson ideas.

Cross-Curricular Lesson Plans Using Novels:


Bending Light

In this lesson students talk about refraction, and perform classroom experiments after reading "Hatchet" by Gary Paulsen. They identify examples of refraction in the novel, and conduct experiments to demonstrate refraction and reflection.


After reading the book "Hatchet" out loud in class, students talk about weather patterns and the seasons. They discuss how the main character in the novel could have survived. They also use graphs to show how long it would take to travel using different methods of transportation. This lesson also provides students the opportunity to compare Canada to South Dakota.


Who Gives A Hoot?

Students learn about owls in this lesson. They work in groups to identify the body parts of an owl, and label the parts. They talk about the owl's role in our ecosystem, and show their place in a food chain.

Enriching Student Inquiry into Endangered Animals

After students read the novel "Hoot" by Carl Hiaasen, they do research projects about an endangered animal. They complete a research project, prepare a persuasive essay, and compare two endangered animals.

Elementary Science Guide

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Jennifer Sinsel