May/June 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 7

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.

Written by Guest Contributor

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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Participate in Chemistry Education Research Study, Earn $500-800 Dollars!

Posted: Tuesday, May 9th, 2017

WestEd, a non-profit educational research agency, has been funded by the US Department of Education to test a new molecular modeling kit, Happy Atoms. Happy Atoms is an interactive chemistry learning experience that consists of a set of physical atoms that connect magnetically to form molecules, and an app that uses image recognition to identify the molecules that you create with the set. WestEd is conducting a study around the effectiveness of using Happy Atoms in the classroom, and we are looking for high school chemistry teachers in California to participate.

As part of the study, teachers will be randomly assigned to either the treatment group (who uses Happy Atoms) or the control group (who uses Happy Atoms at a later date). Teachers in the treatment group will be asked to use the Happy Atoms set in their classrooms for 5 lessons over the course of the fall 2017 semester. Students will complete pre- and post-assessments and surveys around their chemistry content knowledge and beliefs about learning chemistry. WestEd will provide access to all teacher materials, teacher training, and student materials needed to participate.

Participating teachers will receive a stipend of $500-800. You can read more information about the study here:

Please contact Rosanne Luu at or 650.381.6432 if you are interested in participating in this opportunity, or if you have any questions!

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.

2018 Science Instructional Materials Adoption Reviewer Application

Posted: Monday, May 8th, 2017

The California Department of Education and State Board of Education are now accepting applications for reviewers for the 2018 Science Instructional Materials Adoption. The application deadline is 3:00 pm, July 21, 2017. The application is comprehensive, so don’t wait until the last minute to apply.

On Tuesday, May 9, 2017, State Superintendent Tom Torlakson forwarded this recruitment letter to county and district superintendents and charter school administrators.

Review panel members will evaluate instructional materials for use in kindergarten through grade eight, inclusive, that are aligned with the California Next Generation Science Content Standards for California Public Schools (CA NGSS). 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.

Lessons Learned from the NGSS Early Implementer Districts

Posted: Monday, May 8th, 2017

On March 31, 2017, Achieve released two documents examining some lessons learned from the California K-8 Early Implementation Initiative. The initiative began in August 2014 and was developed by the K-12 Alliance at WestEd, with close collaborative input on its design and objectives from the State Board of Education, the California Department of Education, and Achieve.

Eight (8) traditional school districts and two (2) charter management organizations were selected to participate in the initiative, becoming the first districts in California to implement the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). Those districts included Galt Joint Union Elementary, Kings Canyon Joint Unified, Lakeside Union, Oakland Unified, Palm Springs Unified, San Diego Unified, Tracy Joint Unified, Vista Unified, Aspire, and High Tech High.

To more closely examine some of the early successes and challenges experienced by the Early Implementer LEAs, Achieve interviewed nine of the ten participating districts and compiled that information into two resources, focusing primarily on professional learning and instructional materials. 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.

Using Online Simulations to Support the NGSS in Middle School Classrooms

Posted: Monday, May 8th, 2017

by Lesley Gates, Loren Nikkel, and Kambria Eastham

Middle school teachers in Kings Canyon Unified School District (KCUSD), a CA NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative district, have been diligently working on transitioning to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) integrated model for middle school. This year, the teachers focused on building their own knowledge of the Science and Engineering Practices (SEPs). They have been gathering and sharing ideas at monthly collaborative meetings as to how to make sure their students are not just learning about science but that they are actually doing science in their classrooms. Students should be planning and carrying out investigations to gather data for analysis in order to construct explanations. This is best done through hands-on lab experiments. Experimental work is such an important part of the learning of science and education research shows that students learn better and retain more when they are active through inquiry, investigation, and application. A Framework for K-12 Science Education (2011) notes, “…learning about science and engineering involves integration of the knowledge of scientific explanations (i.e., content knowledge) and the practices needed to engage in scientific inquiry and engineering design. Thus the framework seeks to illustrate how knowledge and practice must be intertwined in designing learning experiences in K-12 Science Education” (pg. 11).

Many middle school teachers in KCUSD are facing challenges as they begin implementing these student-driven, inquiry-based NGSS science experiences in their classrooms. First, many of the middle school classrooms at our K-8 school sites are not designed as science labs. Learn More…

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Written by NGSS Early Implementer

NGSS Early Implementer

In 2015 CSTA began to publish a series of articles written by teachers participating in the NGSS Early Implementation Initiative. This article was written by an educator(s) participating in the initiative. CSTA thanks them for their contributions and for sharing their experience with the science teaching community.

Celestial Highlights: May – July 2017

Posted: Monday, May 8th, 2017

May Through July 2017 with Web Resources for the Solar Eclipse of August 21, 2017

by Robert C. Victor. Twilight sky maps by Robert D. Miller. Graphs of planet rising and setting times by Jeffrey L. Hunt.

In spring and summer 2017, Jupiter is the most prominent “star” in the evening sky, and Venus, even brighter, rules the morning. By mid-June, Saturn rises at a convenient evening hour, allowing both giant planets to be viewed well in early evening until Jupiter sinks low in late September. The Moon is always a crescent in its monthly encounters with Venus, but is full whenever it appears near Jupiter or Saturn in the eastern evening sky opposite the Sun. (In 2017, Full Moon is near Jupiter in April, Saturn in June.) At intervals of 27-28 days thereafter, the Moon appears at a progressively earlier phase at each pairing with the outer planet until its final conjunction, with Moon a thin crescent, low in the west at dusk. You’ll see many beautiful events by just following the Moon’s wanderings at dusk and dawn in the three months leading up to the solar eclipse. 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.