September 2016 – Vol. 29 No. 1

ELA in My Science Class? Wait..What?

Posted: Tuesday, September 2nd, 2014

by Jill Grace

For many science teachers, the thought of having responsibility for the language development of students is a sobering prospect. Burned into my memory are the comments of many of my single subject peers in my credential program that could be summed up with the phrase, “I’m teaching science, not reading, that’s the job of the language arts teacher,” clearly unhappy over the prospect of having to take a course on reading and writing in the subject area. Over the years, these words still echo in staff meetings, on discussion boards, and even over meals between colleagues.

From day one, I was shocked by this mentality.

Maybe it was all of the great field research experience I got as an undergrad. Maybe it was the years I spent working “in the field” before discovering my passion for teaching. Whatever it was, I always knew that these skills were central to doing science.

You see, the little secret is, anyone who has ever worked in a science-related job can actually be taught techniques and a lot of the science on the job, but you had better walk in the door with the ability to think for yourself, analyze data, and effectively communicate in collaborative settings and in writing, or you’ll never make it.

This isn’t just important in the “real world,” students in a science class need these skills for another important reason. As a teacher, I have no idea what my students have learned if they can’t communicate about it. Just selecting the “right” answer on a multiple choice test doesn’t actually tell me anything other than they are good at memorizing or can guess a correct response.

From day one in the classroom, I made it my mission to work on literacy skills with my students. This was no easy challenge. On most days I felt like I was the only content teacher asking kids to write. The kids even seemed confused, “This is science, why do we have to write?” I even had parents object. Despite students doing their best to comply, what I would get from them looked like something pulled out of a dialogue between two friends hanging out on a Saturday afternoon, “When I saw my bacteria I was so surprised. It grew because I put it there. I really liked this experiment and I want to do more experiments. Bacteria is awesomesauce.”

It became apparent that I couldn’t just ask my students to write a conclusion, I had to teach them what that looked like in science. I also had the added challenge of helping students who struggled with reading and writing, no matter the reason. For some, this was because they were learning a new language, others were below average in reading comprehension, written expression, etc., and some just have what I call “literacy phobia.”

Now it’s 2014 and Common Core is pushing the issue. Turns out, a lot of the strategies that I started using to help my students be successful complement beautifully the Common Core standards. I know a lot of teachers, however, who are running into challenges. So here are three things that I think are pretty important to get off on the right foot: implement an interactive notebook, find some good supplemental readings, and provide scaffolds.

Interactive Notebook (IN)
In my article last month, I hinted about the way in which the IN supports literacy. The IN basically begs for students to regularly record observations, express reasoning, make connections in content, formulate conclusions, and so much more.

To illustrate this, I have opened up the NGSS page for the preferred model for California 7th grade science. At the very bottom of each Performance Expectation, relevant Common Core standards are identified. As a case in point, I’m using a personal favorite of mine, Earth Science, MS-ESS2 (1-3) (this PE is in the 6th grade in the discipline specific learning progression). Identified in this table I created are the Common Core ELA standards identified, and how I think the IN supports that standard.

Keep in mind that students can use both the source material and their IN as a reference for all of this work. Once students understand how the IN works and what outputs are, all of this work is entirely realistic – you’ll be amazed at what your students can do!

Age-appropriate sources of science information
I have always moved beyond the textbook with my students as I feel it is important to share up-to-date information as scientists are always learning new things. Common Core standards support this behavior. One of the challenges that I face is finding good quality readings for students that are age-appropriate, scientifically accurate, timely, and interesting. With the help of some awesome teachers on the California Middle School Science Teacher’s Facebook Group, here are some suggestions:

The Story Behind the Science
This has great biographical pieces on scientists behind important breakthroughs with strong nature of science connections. They are lengthy pieces, but very well done. I can see myself using a portion of an article with my middle school students – or guiding them through a full article over a few days.

CPO Science
When CPO Science™ released their materials in the last science textbook adoption, they had great “ancillary” materials that included one-page biographies of scientists that give a lot more information than the standard textbook nod. Fortunately, these are fairly easy to find on their website. From the home page, select the tab “for students” → choose your grade-level → Under “Ancillaries” (right hand column), select skills and practice sheets → choose a unit. Not all units will have the biographies, but most do.

The Nature Education Project
Brought to you by the folks who publish the journal, Nature, this site looks promising! I just discovered it this past spring and I’m eager to try out some pieces on my students (possibly with a little editing by me). Since they are intimately connected to a primary literature source, the information is reliable.

Science NetLinks
Brought to you by the folks who publish the journal, Science, this page has a lot of different resources. Do a little digging and you’ll find some age-appropriate articles that can be used with your students. As with The Nature Education Project, since they are intimately connected to a primary literature source, so the information is reliable.

New York Science Times
Issued every Tuesday (you can even pick one up at your local Starbucks) this has good quality science writing and is one of my favorite go-to sources for science reporting (I find a lot of problems with other newspapers taking liberties with scientific information or generally presenting incomplete and therefore misleading conclusions). Since it’s written for a non-science audience, it’s fairly readable for many middle school kids.

National Public Radio
As with the New York Times, NPR also has writers with science backgrounds and therefore has good quality science pieces with the added benefit of many also being archived as a podcast students can listen to.

Science Daily
This is a really robust site that features a summary of the latest research findings with links to the original literature.

Scholastic Science World
With options that include print, web, and even an iPad app, students usually love their articles and find the reading more “user friendly” than the ones I’ve previously listed, so it’s great for a more relaxed reading source.

California Department of Education Recommended Literature List
Recently updated and with suggestions on how to use books for classroom instruction, this is a very comprehensive list of literature with a powerful search engine.

Appendix A of the ELA/ELD Framework
This Appendix provides a rough outline of strategies as well as references sites with recommended reading sources (you’ll have to dig around for science-related information).

Achieve 3000
With countless articles that can be searched for by topic and even Lexile level, this is a large collection of articles. For the full experience, your school needs to be a subscriber. I know a lot of teachers who have been using this, but my science colleagues and I in particular have mixed feelings (our predominant view is that the science-related articles are out-dated). I still share this, however, as it is a powerful site and I keep hoping they will add more science articles.

With a free registration, you’ll have access to some research-based readings that include follow-up materials.

News ELA
This site has numerous articles from the news that allows for adjustments for various reading levels (so cool!)

The third big challenge I have faced is supporting my students who have difficulty with putting ideas on paper. Quite frankly, everyone, even strong students, have rough days and just need a little more help. Scaffolding for students generally helps most find success and align work towards the expectations of the teacher. Here are a couple suggestions:

Brainstorm tables
Many times, even high achieving students have good ideas, but it’s intimidating to put it into a sentence on the first try. One example of this is when students need to make an evidence-based conclusion. A simple “claim/evidence table” usually helps them be successful:


Sentence frames
When one’s brain turns to mush, a simple sentence frame can both help students understand what is expected, and also get the writing mojo going. The beauty of frames is that once students have used them once or twice, they don’t need them anymore. Here is an example of a frame for writing out that full conclusion sentence:

In conclusion____ insert claim____ My evidence is ____ insert evidence____.

Obviously sentences will need a little tweaking, but this is usually a big help to students.

Paragraph structure directions
Give students directions for how to construct a paragraph in science! This helps everyone understand exactly what the expectations are. Students who are more advanced writers won’t need this and can branch out on their own, but this little bit of guidance helps reduce anxiety and help students understand your expectations. Here is one example:

  • 1st sentence: thesis sentence where you identify your main point. If you are responding to a question, you should rephrase the question in this sentence.
  • 2nd sentence: first supporting concrete detail with example or commentary
  • 3rd sentence: second supporting concrete detail with example or commentary
  • 4th sentence: third supporting concrete detail with example or commentary
  • 5th sentence: concluding sentence (rephrase your thesis)

At least one example should come directly from something you learned in class. Use your new vocabulary!

I also often have the whole class brainstorm the structure, and I record the conversation on the white board. (Oh, and those funny little purple icons are a little thing called Depth and Complexity, it takes student writing to a whole new, glorious, level.)


Hopefully these suggestions will be helpful to you and your colleagues. No doubt there are other wonderful techniques and resources that have helped you blend ELA and science. I encourage you to join the discussion on our California Middle School Science Teacher Facebook group and share what has worked for you!



Written by Jill Grace

Jill Grace

Jill Grace is a Regional Director for the K-12 Alliance and is the President-elect for CSTA.

2 Responses

  1. I read with interest your Sept. post, especially the revealing
    comments that (1) you often needed to help students understand
    HOW to write (a conclusion, for example), not just what to write,
    and (2) scaffolds provide a key bridge to cognitive maturity.

    Several years of wrestling with this same challenge of “technical
    writing for science class” has yielded some shared background,
    examples, and activities at
    and a two-day professional development workshop, repeated each
    summer at the Edward Teller Education Center,
    with a content overview posted at

    The Common Core standards have indeed made literacy the
    responsibilty of every teacher.

    T. R. Girill
    LLNL Visiting Scientist

  2. Dear T.R. Girill,
    Fabulous – thank you so much for sharing!

Leave a Reply


California Science Assessment Update

Posted: Wednesday, October 12th, 2016

by Jessica Sawko

In June 2016 California submitted a waiver application to discontinue using the old CST (based on 1998 standards) and conduct two years of pilot and field tests (in spring 2017 and 2018, respectively) of the new science assessment designed to support our state’s current science standards (California Next Generation Science Standards (CA-NGSS) adopted in 2013). The waiver was requested because no student scores will be provided as a part of the pilot and field tests. The CDE received a response from the U.S. Department of Education (ED) on September 30, 2016, which provides the CDE the opportunity to resubmit a revised waiver request within 60 days. The CDE will be revising the waiver request and resubmitting as ED suggested.

At its October 2016 North/South Assessment meetings CDE confirmed that there will be no administration of the old CST in the spring of 2017. (An archive of the meeting is available at Learn More…

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

Some ways to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service in your classroom

Posted: Thursday, September 22nd, 2016

by Carol Peterson

1) To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, Google has put together a collection of virtual tours combining 360-degree video, panoramic photos and expert narration. It’s called “The Hidden Worlds of the National Parks” and is accessible right from the browser. You can choose from one of five different locales, including the Kenai Fjords in Alaska and Bryce Canyon in Utah, and get a guided “tour” from a local park ranger. Each one has a few virtual vistas to explore, with documentary-style voiceovers and extra media hidden behind clickable thumbnails. Ideas are included for use in classrooms. Learn More…

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

2016 Award Recipients – Join CSTA in Honoring Their Accomplishments

Posted: Thursday, September 22nd, 2016

CSTA is pleased to announce the winners of the 2016 CSTA Awards for Distinguished Contributions, Margaret Nicholson Distinguished Service Award, 2014 and 2015 PAEMST-Science recipients from California, and the 2016 California PAEMST Finalists. The following individuals and organizations will be honored during the 2016 California Science Education Conference  on October 21- 23 in Palm Springs. This year’s group of awardees are truly outstanding. Please join us in congratulating them!

Margaret Nicholson Distinguished Service Award

John Keller

John Keller

The Margaret Nicholson Distinguished Service Award honors an individual who has made a significant contribution to science education in the state and who, through years of leadership and service, has truly made a positive impact on the quality of science teaching. This year’s recipient is John Keller, Ph.D. Dr. Keller is Associate Professor, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and Co-Director, Center for Engineering, Science, and Mathematics Education, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. In her letter of recommendation, SDSU science education faculty and former CSTA board member Donna Ross wrote: “He brings people together who share the desire to make a difference in the development and implementation of programs for science teaching. Examples of these projects include the Math and Science Teaching Initiative (MSTI), Noyce Scholars Program, Western Regional Noyce Initiative, and the Science Teacher and Researcher (STAR) program.” Through his work, he has had a dramatic impact on science teacher education, both preservice and in-service, in California, the region, and the country. He developed and implemented the STEM Teacher and Researcher Program which aims to produce excellent K-12 STEM teachers by providing aspiring teachers with opportunities to do authentic research while helping them translate their research experience into classroom practice. SFSU faculty member Larry Horvath said it best in his letter:“John Keller exemplifies the best aspects of a scientist, science educator, and mentor. His contributions to science education in the state of California are varied, significant, and I am sure will continue well into the future.” Learn More…

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

NGSS: Making Your Life Easier

Posted: Tuesday, September 20th, 2016

by Peter A’hearn

Wait… What?

NGSS is a big shift. Teachers need to learn new content, figure out how this whole engineering thing relates to science, and develop new unit and lesson plans. How could NGSS possibly make life easier?

The idea that NGSS could make our lives easier came to me during the California State NGSS Rollout #1 Classroom Example lesson on chromatography. I have since done this lesson with high school chemistry students and it made me think back to having my own students do chromatography. I spent lots of time preparing to make sure the experiment went well and achieved the “correct” result. I pre-prepared the solutions and organized and prepped the materials. I re-wrote and re-wrote again the procedure so there was no way a kid could get it wrong. I spent 20 minutes before the lab modeling all of the steps in class, so there was no way to do it wrong. Except that it turns out there were many. Learn More…

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Written by Peter AHearn

Peter AHearn

Peter A’Hearn is the K-12 science specialist in the Palm Springs Unified School District and is Region 4 Director for CSTA.

Celestial Highlights, September 2016

Posted: Tuesday, September 20th, 2016

by Robert C. Victor. Twilight sky maps by Robert D. Miller. Graph of evening planet setting times by Dr. Jeffrey L. Hunt 

Our evening twilight chart for September, depicting the sky about 40 minutes after sunset from SoCal, shows brilliant Venus remaining low, creeping from W to WSW and gaining a little altitude as the month progresses. Its close encounter within 2.5° N of Spica on Sept. 18 is best seen with binoculars to catch the star low in bright twilight. The brightest stars in the evening sky are golden Arcturus descending in the west, and blue-white Vega passing just north of overhead. Look for Altair and Deneb completing the Summer Triangle with Vega. The triangle of Mars-Saturn-Antares expands as Mars seems to hold nearly stationary in SSW as the month progresses, while Saturn and Antares slink off to the SW. Learn More…

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Written by Robert Victor

Robert Victor

Robert C. Victor was Staff Astronomer at Abrams Planetarium, Michigan State University. He is now retired and enjoys providing skywatching opportunities for school children in and around Palm Springs, CA. Robert is a member of CSTA.