September/October 2017 – Vol. 30 No. 1

Science Literacy: Writing, Reading and Oral Language in CCSS

Posted: Wednesday, December 4th, 2013

by Susan Gomez Zwiep and Jody Sherriff

Reading, writing, speaking, and listening are integral to the development of new knowledge in science both by students in the classroom and by scientists in the field. The new Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for ELA provide a new opportunity for science teachers to integrate ELA into science instruction in ways that mirror and support scientific thinking.

Consider this scenario: when you start a new unit about density and buoyancy think about what activity or series of observations might engage your students’ curiosity. As you introduce the unit, the goal is not to “teach” but rather, to get students talking so you can assess their prior knowledge. If you are someone who typically begins by reading part of the textbook or reviewing important vocabulary, resist these urges for now and instead start immediately with a hands-on activity. For example, give students two cups: one with water and one with rubbing alcohol. Provide them with some ice and ask them to individually record their observations after placing ice in each cup. (Students should observe that the ice floats in water but sinks in the rubbing alcohol.)

The next step is to ask students to collaborate on a group description and explanation for what they observed. A piece of chart paper works well to give them lots of room to share their initial explanations with each other. Tell students that when they present the results of their discussion they will need to identify where their explanation is in agreement with those who have presented already and where there is disagreement. This encourages students to listen to each other’s explanations and keeps the discussion from becoming repetitive. You will need to keep track of where the explanations are accurate and where the student thinking needs to be refined. When all groups have presented, give students a few minutes to go back to their explanations and add/edit based on the class discussion. Then ask the class to think about the explanations they just heard and discuss what makes an explanation a “good” explanation? Students often say things like it was clear, details were included, or terms were used correctly. Record student ideas somewhere easily visible and in a form you can return to later.

In the sample exercise described above, the students engaged in scientific observation, analysis, and collaboration. They also engaged in a range of collaborative discussions on grade-level topics to express their ideas and build on others’ ideas (CCSS Speaking and Listening Standards, Comprehension and Collaboration). Students also presented claims and findings, and evaluated the soundness of the reasoning and relevance of the evidence in the claims of others (CCSS Speaking and Listening Standards, Presentation of Knowledge and Ideas). They also began to engage in the process of developing an argument focused on discipline specific content (CCSS ELA standards for History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects, grades 6-12.)

At this point student thinking is primed and ready for additional information, such as from a textbook, to help clarify and refine their explanations. If your textbook has relevant information on your topic, direct students to this resource. If you have the ability to access the Internet, you may also want to let students search on the Internet to find additional information. Students have a reason for engaging with text – they have a place to take the information gathered and can use the information to develop and support their explanations. This mirrors how most of us, including scientists, use informational text in the real world; that is, we read to gather specific information for a specific purpose. By placing the reading at this point in the instruction, you have provided that purpose.

You may also find that graphic organizers or reading strategies can improve your students’ comprehension and organization of the new information. For example, sticky notes can be used to identify parts of the text that answer a question, mark an interesting idea, or explain an area that was not initially understood. Allow students time to share the areas of the reading they have marked with each other. This can be done formally in pairs where students take turns sharing passages that helped to answer their question or that brought up new questions. As students begin to use the new information to revise their explanation you have an opportunity to visit each group and discuss their ideas, clarify points of confusion. This is also a good time to review the relevant vocabulary that students should have encountered in the text. Before you know it, students have identified key ideas and details in text (Reading Standards, Key Ideas and Details), integrated knowledge and ideas from text, and compared and contrasted that information with their explanations (Reading Standards for Informational Text K-5, Reading Standards for History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects 6-12).

The initial explanations the students developed are now ready to be finalized. Students will use their observations, information from text materials, and their revised explanations to write their own summaries about the phenomena observed (ice sinking and floating in two different liquids). Again, a simple graphic organizer can help students organize their thoughts. Their explanation (or claim) can be stated and then supported with evidence from their observations, reading, and discussions. Finally, a justification should be written explaining why their evidence supports the claim. This is the time to refer students back to their earlier list of what made a “good” explanation. In the process, students developed skill in strengthening their explanations through revision, editing, and rewriting (CCSS Writing Standards, Production and Distribution of Writing). They also recalled important information from experiences, print and digital resources, and summarized this information in writing (CCSS Writing Standards, Research to Build and Present Knowledge).


We could let those that the world considers “English Language Arts Experts” to direct our implementation of the new CCSS. However, as scientists can provide real-world contexts that can instill excitement and curiosity in students as they search to understand the world and communicate that understanding. Science can give students a reason to read and a purpose to write, creating motivation to persist through complex text and abstract ideas. The real-world context and observation of tangible material can support students who struggle reading and writing at grade-level or have limited proficiency in English. Communication is central to the scientific endeavor. Scientists read each other’s evidence and claims, they debate in oral and written forums, they write new arguments and counter-arguments. As science teachers we have a great deal of expertise about reading, writing, listening, and speaking. The English teachers may not know it yet, but in this new world of CCSS-ELA, science teachers are their new best friends.

Susan Gomez Zwiep is an Associate Professor of Science Education at California State University, Long Beach. Jody Sherriff is a Regional Director for the K12 Alliance. Both are members of CSTA.

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From time to time CSTA receives contributions from guest contributors. The opinions and views expressed by these contributors are not necessarily those of CSTA. By publishing these articles CSTA does not make any endorsements or statements of support of the author or their contribution, either explicit or implicit. All links to outside sources are subject to CSTA’s Disclaimer Policy:

2 Responses

  1. Thanks for writing such an informative and interesting article. I find it’s so tempting to start with the textbook. By beginning with an experience (which also helps to motivate and foster critical thinking), the students can then hook the more abstract ideas from the book onto their concrete experiences. This is a great article to share with teachers and preservice teachers. Thanks for the contribution!

  2. Susan and Jody, thank you for the masterful description of learning integration. I want you to know that I am currently engaged in a semi-intellectual debate with a bunch of public school critics up here in Oregon who believe class size does not matter and varied instructional strategies are some kind of joke invented by the teacher’s unions to provide an excuse for “in-service days” (code for free-play time). I paraphrased the example you gave and contrasted it with a more traditional approach in order to illustrate both the depth and breadth of an inquiry-based lesson and to support my contention that such a classroom is more effective if class-size is limited.

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State Schools Chief Tom Torlakson Announces 2017 Finalists for Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching

Posted: Wednesday, September 20th, 2017

SACRAMENTO—State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson today nominated eight exceptional secondary mathematics and science teachers as California finalists for the 2017 Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST).

“These teachers are dedicated and accomplished individuals whose innovative teaching styles prepare our students for 21st century careers and college and develop them into the designers and inventors of the future,” Torlakson said. “They rank among the finest in their profession and also serve as wonderful mentors and role models.”

The California Department of Education (CDE) partners annually with the California Science Teachers Association and the California Mathematics Council to recruit and select nominees for the PAEMST program—the highest recognition in the nation for a mathematics or science teacher. The Science Finalists will be recognized at the CSTA Awards Luncheon on Saturday, October 14, 2017. 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.

Thriving in a Time of Change

Posted: Wednesday, September 13th, 2017

by Jill Grace

By the time this message is posted online, most schools across California will have been in session for at least a month (if not longer, and hat tip to that bunch!). Long enough to get a good sense of who the kids in your classroom are and to get into that groove and momentum of the daily flow of teaching. It’s also very likely that for many of you who weren’t a part of a large grant initiative or in a district that set wheels in motion sooner, this is the first year you will really try to shift instruction to align to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). I’m not going to lie to you, it’s a challenging year – change is hard. Change is even harder when there’s not a playbook to go by.  But as someone who has had the very great privilege of walking alongside teachers going through that change for the past two years and being able to glimpse at what this looks like for different demographics across that state, there are three things I hope you will hold on to. These are things I have come to learn will overshadow the challenge: a growth mindset will get you far, one is a very powerful number, and it’s about the kids. Learn More…

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Written by Jill Grace

Jill Grace

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

If You Are Not Teaching Science Then You Are Not Teaching Common Core

Posted: Thursday, August 31st, 2017

by Peter A’Hearn 

“Science and Social Studies can be taught for the last half hour of the day on Fridays”

– Elementary school principal

Anyone concerned with the teaching of science in elementary school is keenly aware of the problem of time. Kids need to learn to read, and learning to read takes time, nobody disputes that. So Common Core ELA can seem like the enemy of science. This was a big concern to me as I started looking at the curriculum that my district had adopted for Common Core ELA. I’ve been through those years where teachers are learning a new curriculum, and know first-hand how a new curriculum can become the focus of attention- sucking all the air out of the room. Learn More…

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Written by Peter AHearn

Peter AHearn

Peter A’Hearn is the Region 4 Director for CSTA.

Tools for Creating NGSS Standards Based Lessons

Posted: Tuesday, August 29th, 2017

by Elizabeth Cooke

Think back on your own experiences with learning science in school. Were you required to memorize disjointed facts without understanding the concepts?

Science Education Background

In the past, science education focused on rote memorization and learning disjointed ideas. Elementary and secondary students in today’s science classes are fortunate now that science instruction has shifted from students demonstrating what they know to students demonstrating how they are able to apply their knowledge. Science education that reflects the Next Generation Science Standards challenges students to conduct investigations. As students explore phenomena and discrepant events they engage in academic discourse guided by focus questions from their teachers or student generated questions of that arise from analyzing data and creating and revising models that explain natural phenomena. Learn More…

Written by Elizabeth Cooke

Elizabeth Cooke

Elizabeth Cooke teaches TK-5 science at Markham Elementary in the Oakland Unified School District, is an NGSS Early Implementer, and is CSTA’s Secretary.

News and Happenings in CSTA’s Region 1 – Fall 2017

Posted: Tuesday, August 29th, 2017

by Marian Murphy-Shaw


This month I was fortunate enough to hear about some new topics to share with our entire region. Some of you may access the online or newsletter options, others may attend events in person that are nearer to you. Long time CSTA member and environmental science educator Mike Roa is well known to North Bay Area teachers for his volunteer work sharing events and resources. In this month’s Region 1 updates I am happy to make a few of the options Mike offers available to our region. Learn More…

Written by Marian Murphy-Shaw

Marian Murphy-Shaw

Marian Murphy-Shaw is the student services director at Siskiyou County Office of Education and is CSTA’s Region 1 Director and chair of CSTA’s Policy Committee.