September 2016 – Vol. 29 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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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.