May/June 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 7

Writing for Conceptual Change

Posted: Tuesday, September 2nd, 2014

by Joey Noelle Lehnhard and Beth Callaghan

In addition to developing scientific habits of mind and critical thinking skills, we know that writing can also be a powerful way to increase our students’ understanding of complex scientific concepts. The Common Core State Standards ask that starting in 6th grade students, “Write arguments focused on discipline-specific content.”(CCSS.WHST.6-8.1) In addition, NGSS Practice 7, “Engaging in Argument from Evidence,” asks that starting in 3rd grade, students:

  • “Compare and refine arguments based on an evaluation of the evidence presented.”
  • “Distinguish among facts, reasoned judgment based on research findings, and speculation in an explanation.”

The reasons for this are fully laid out in the National Research Council’s Framework for K-12 Science Education, upon which the NGSS are based. However, put simply, science uses reasoning to support and develop claims to explain phenomena and develop solutions to problems. Throughout the process, the limitations, strengths, and weaknesses of arguments are continually evaluated. For scientists, this process results in “good science.” For laypersons and students, this process results in being able to distinguish good science from bad and legitimate arguments from fallacious ones.

Effective science teachers can engage their students in scientific writing in many ways. One example, writing refutational text, is a strategy that aids in conceptual change (Tippett 2010) by addressing students’ misconceptions and supports students in arguing from evidence, while also teaching scientific writing conventions. It is particularly appropriate for middle and high school students. Within the refutational writing experience, students begin with a solid grounding in the science concepts before the writing takes place. They do science, read about it, and actively learn before the writing lesson occurs. For instance, in the beginning of the school year, many of us teach the scientific process or what scientists do. We emphasize the nonlinear nature of science by asking our students to revisit and revise their protocols, improve their designs, or even refine their questions through concrete experiences. This is enhanced by lectures or readings on how scientists collect data, make conclusions and design investigations. The refutational writing piece concludes the process.

The following is a sample step-by-step guide to a refutational writing instructional plan:

1. Students read an article that they will be able to refute based on their science experiences, knowledge, and research. Topics may include relevant issues-based topics such as climate change or common misconceptions like density or what causes seasons. Be sure not to show bias when assigning the initial reading. Let students begin with an open mind. Often, this initial reading is assigned as homework.

2. Instruct students to use a reading comprehension strategy as they read: annotation, Cornell notetaking, etc.

3. In partners or small groups, students discuss what they read. Ask them to share what surprised them about the article. Encourage them to be specific by asking them to say more about their thoughts, reiterate or rephrase a classmate’s idea, etc. This gives students opportunities to practice science discourse and enhance their understanding of the vocabulary by using academic language, learning from each other, and refining their own thoughts.

4. Provide an anchor refutational text like the example shown in Figure 1. Identify the parts of the text as a class, e.g., the claim, any evidence, reasoning, etc. Pull out sentence starters to use in their own writing and help them identify what they are refuting: the conclusion, the evidence, the omission of evidence, etc.

Figure 2. Sample anchor refutational text.

Figure 1. Sample anchor refutational text.

5. Give students a writing scaffold to organize their thinking. This should help them connect the science concepts they know to the reading. The scaffold should mirror the type of writing you want from them. We’ve found success using organizers like the one in Figure 2.

Figure 3. Writing scaffold to help organize student's thoughts.

Figure 2. Writing scaffold to help organize student’s thoughts.

6. Ask students to read aloud what they’ve written in the graphic organizer to a partner. We’ve used the quiet, smile, nod strategy to help students begin to actively listen and create a sense of safety for the reader. This can be helpful for all learners, even at the high school level. After both partners read, the two consult and help each other revise their organizers.

7. Give students time to transfer their thoughts into a more formal piece of writing. Often, this is simply a well-constructed paragraph.

8. Use the students’ refutational text to analyze the quality of their arguments. In small groups, have students read two of their texts (with names omitted) and discuss the strength of the two arguments. Afterwards, return students’ own writing and allow them to revise their work.
This process is lengthy and takes more than a single class period; however, including such rigorous writing experiences occasionally throughout the year helps students clarify and internalize the science concepts you are teaching while practicing a skill emphasized in both.

Writing samples produced by teachers in learner role during the Monterey Bay Aquarium's summer teacher institute.  Connecting with Marine Science for high school classroom teachers.

Writing samples produced by teachers in learner role during the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s summer teacher institute. Connecting with Marine Science for high school classroom teachers.

Common Core State Standards and Next Generation Science Standards
In the Common Core literacy in science standards, starting in seventh grade, students are expected to analyze counterclaims in their persuasive writing as well as analyze discipline-specific texts. Perhaps more importantly, developing these scientific habits of mind and critical thinking skills may help students internalize new content more readily in the future and become critical consumers of information in and out of school.

Joey and Beth are Senior Education Specialists at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, former classroom teachers, and current CSTA members. Follow them on twitter @joeyelle and @BethACallaghan




A Framework for K-12 Science Education – Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas. The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C. 2012.

Tippett, C. D. (2010). Refutation text in science education: A review of two decades of research. International Journal of Science and Mathematics Education, 8(6), 951-970.

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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:

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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.