September 2016 – Vol. 29 No. 1

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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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.