September/October 2017 – Vol. 30 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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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.