CSTA Classroom Science

Science Helps Build Language for All: An Early Implementer Perspective

By Dave Tupper and Cecelia Ochoa

A fundamental principle in the CA Next Generation Science Standards (CA NGSS) is that students must use the three dimensions to understand and begin to explain specific phenomena and that the phenomena drive the science (CA Science Framework). If this is our goal, it becomes clear very quickly that the process of “figuring out” the phenomenon, developing understanding, and then sharing that new learning, is going to require language.

As stated in the recently released report Unlocking Learning: Science as a Lever for English Learner Equity from Ed Trust West, “Research points to the potential of science to increase students’ academic performance in reading, writing, and science simultaneously. In part, this is the result of weaving together language development skills with engaging science content.” The effectiveness of science as a vehicle for language development is becoming increasingly evident as our Early Implementer teachers engage in the K-12 Alliance’s lesson study process called, the Teaching Learning Collaborative (TLC).  Below are two different examples of lessons collaboratively developed by cross-district grade level teams as they get smarter together about CA NGSS teaching and learning. Both lessons were taught, debriefed, and revised during the TLC process, with the examples shared in this article from the “first teach” of the TLC process. Classrooms in Lakeside Union School District have varying formats including traditional English, Spanish immersion, and Special Day Class (mild-moderate special needs). As we describe lessons taught by these two teams, see if you can figure out what kind of classroom we were in.

Team 1: 2nd Grade Classrooms
In a 2nd grade lesson building towards competency in the PE 2-LS2-1 (Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy and Dynamics), students were engaged with the 3-dimensional learning sequence concept of planning an investigation to gather evidence about what effects plant survival. In this case, the teachers designed the lesson so kids were concentrating on the single variable of sunlight. Through questioning, the teachers were able to reveal student prior knowledge as to whether or not plants were alive, and what they might need to survive. As the kids engaged in a quick Think-Pair-Share discussion, the language, rationale, and negotiating of ideas was apparent. After giving students time to share their thinking, one of the teachers then charted all student responses up front. Next, while still accessing current understanding, several students were randomly selected to come up to the interactive whiteboard and sort different objects into the categories of “need to survive” and “not needed to survive.” After more student discussion, a tentative consensus was reached that plants needed sunlight and water to survive. Now that all kids were ready to enter the learning at pretty much the same place, another teacher from the team then opened the cabinet and produced a number of withered and brown flowering plants, relating the story of how she put them in the cabinet over winter break in order to “keep them safe.”

Students record observations.[/caption] 

As plants were passed around, students were invited to examine them while recording their observations of this phenomenon in their science notebooks. The teacher then prompted with “What do you notice? What caused this?” with the students discussing their ideas in table groups and adding to their notebook observations before sharing out.

Written and oral student responses were shared out and charted up front for all to see. Responses included plenty of descriptive words such as crispy, brown, dead, dying, wilted, etc., while the causes included thoughts around the ideas of either no water or no sun/light being responsible for the plant’s condition. The teacher quickly shared that she had come in over the break and made sure the plants had just the right amount of water, so the lack of water couldn’t be responsible for the demise of the plants.  Students concluded that it must be that it wasn’t getting enough sun/light.

Following up on the student observations, another teacher from the team, mentioned that since the class seemed to think the plant was dead/dying because it needed sunlight to survive, there must be a way to find out for sure. The prompt became, “Is there a way we can test or investigate to find out if plants need sun/light to survive?” “Test it,” “Do an experiment” came the responses from the students, at which point students were asked to collaboratively design a plan to find out if plants need light to survive.

Students collaboratively design a plan to find out if plants need light to survive.[/caption] 

Each group was given a whiteboard and time to discuss and formulate a plan before each student was handed a marker. The discourse was rich as students shared their thoughts, adjusted their thinking, and together drew out their plan for an investigation using both words and pictures.

As the work started to slow down, students were asked to share and explain their plan to the group nearest them, followed by a gallery walk to look at the other plans and finally to make any additions or adjustments to their plan.

As a final check for understanding at the end of this lesson, students were asked to write out their current thoughts in their science notebook using the prompt: We think our teacher’s plant died because ____________, to test this we will ____________. As students completed the prompt, they were free to use the classroom charts and their collaborative whiteboard as a resource.

[gallery type="rectangular" link="file" ids="13949,13950"] 2 IMAGES, NO URL

Team 2: 4th/5th Grade Classrooms
Across the district in 4th/5th multi-age classrooms another lesson was unfolding. In this instance, students were attempting to explain the phenomenon of the lake next to the school drying up (this was used as the anchor phenomenon for the unit where students could observe local effects of the California drought). The learning sequence concept for the lesson was for students to develop and use a model to demonstrate the interdependent relationships in ecosystems where small changes can impact the whole system as part of the DCI, LS2.A (Interdependent Relationships in Ecosystems), and building towards the Performance Expectation 5-LS2-1 (Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy, and Dynamics).

The engage phase of the 5E lesson began with the accessing of prior knowledge and asking students to individually write in their science notebooks in response to the prompt “What do plants and animals need to survive?” After some individual thinking and writing, students discussed and shared their thoughts at their table before sharing out whole group with the teacher charting and clustering responses up front (and in some cases adding a picture for clarity). Students discussed what was common to the list, arriving at the conclusion that they were all needed for survival. The teacher then added the title of “needs” to the chart.

Through further questioning, a quick sorting activity, and student-to-student discourse, the teacher was next able to surface and make visual the students’ prior understanding that organisms meet their needs with resources from their environment. As the class moved into the explore phase of the lesson, they began utilizing the Crosscutting Concept lens of Systems and System Models to explore the concept of ecosystem interdependence through the Science and Engineering Practice of Developing and Using Models.

Students creating a system using the organisms in their envelopes.[/caption] 

Each table group of students were given an envelope with various pictures of organisms on cards with a few clues as to the organism’s role. Not every envelope contained the same organisms.  Students were prompted to create a system using the organisms in their envelopes. The discussions were rich as students began to organize and reorganized their cards into systems, drawing (and often redrawing) arrows to show connections, and conferring with each other to determine placement.

Pre-designed teacher prompts were used as appropriate and included questions like:
•    Why did you organize the cards that way?
•    What are the arrows/lines showing?
•    How does your system relate to the needs chart up front?
•    Can you explain how each organism depends on each other?

Once kids had their collaborative model fairly solid, they were asked, “What if we removed the mice?” “Does the system change?” The tables deliberated, and many rearranged their model after animated conversations; “if we take the mice out, the snakes still have something to eat,” “they have the toads, but they don’t have an option,” “toads might go extinct,” and “toads could eat all the insects, then what?”


Students came to the preliminary conclusion that changing one part of the system impacts the whole thing. A teacher then asked, “What if we put the mice back, and removed or added something else to your system?”  Groups were given the option to add a new organism provided by the teacher or to remove an organism. More discussion ensued as the groups made their choice and collaboratively adjusted their whiteboard model to accommodate the change.

After some time, the groups were paused and asked to quickly share out based on the prompt “What did you change in your model of a system, and what was the effect of that change?” Each student summarized the group’s consensus in their science notebook with various versions of the idea that small changes in a system can impact the entire system

The final part of the lesson revisited the units anchoring phenomenon, the dry lake, provided a window into student thinking and asked students to apply some of their understanding as they individually answered the prompt in their science notebook: “What would happen to your system if there was a drought and much less water was available for the system?” The amount of writing was prodigious, evidence-based, supported by relatively sound reasoning, and rich with academic vocabulary as kids utilized their models, classroom charts, and other resources developed throughout the lesson. They were so engaged that we couldn’t stop them from writing.

Science Helps Build Language for All
After reading through the two lessons above are you able identify which of the classrooms is a Mild/Moderate Special Day Classroom? A Spanish Full Immersion classroom? A traditional English-only classroom?

As teachers in a TLC team collaboratively plan lessons, it is a seamless process no matter the demographics their individual classrooms. Both teams consisted of teachers at the same grade level, but some teach Spanish Immersion, SPED, and traditional English. They all teach at different school sites, serving different demographics. On the teaching day, the 2nd grade lesson was taught in a Spanish immersion class, and the 4th/5th grade lesson in an SDC classroom. While debriefing the lessons, both the 2nd and 4th-grade teams arrived at the same conclusion: effective phenomenon-based 3-Dimensional instruction helps build language for ALL populations of kids; the pedagogy is consistent. “NGSS helps to build a space for language”, and “every student is a language learner” were some of the teacher comments that align with the A Framework for K-12 Science Education when it states, “Science and engineering practices can actually serve as productive entry points for students from diverse communities-including students from different social and linguistic traditions, particularly second language learners.” Other observations shared by teachers included: The high-interest nature of NGSS causes children to hurdle over any concerns they might have had about using the “right” language, and provided the space for natural or imperfect language while they began building conceptual understanding as well as academic vocabulary. This was evident in the writing and discussions as some students in Spanish immersion class mixed the target language and their native language as they worked to make sense of the concepts. In the SDC classroom above (a 4th/5th Grade Classroom), the practice of modeling, student-to-student discourse, use of manipulatives, and other strategies all worked to support students as they wrote their claim. The comment from one SDC teacher was “they have never written this much, and I didn’t over scaffold it!”

As our Early Implementer teachers gather experience planning and delivering CA NGSS aligned lessons/learning sequences, they continue to accumulate evidence strengthening the argument for science as the context for language development. Moving forward in our journey the connection between the two content areas continues to grow stronger as we get closer to making science a core part of a student’s day once more.

Dave Tupper is the CA NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Project Director for Lakeside Union School District and a member of CSTA.

Cecilia Ochoa is the CAMSP IDEAS 2.0 Project Director for Lakeside Union School District and a member of CSTA.

NRC Framework: National Research Council. A framework for K-12 science education: Practices, crosscutting concepts, and core ideas. National Academies Press, 2012. (Retrieved from: https://www.nap.edu/catalog/13165/a-framework-for-k-12-science-education-practices-crosscutting-concepts)

CA NGSS Draft Framework (Overview and Instructional Strategies Chapter): California Department of Education. Curriculum Frameworks and Instructional Resources Division. California NGSS Draft Science Framework, 2016. (The draft version is no longer available. You may access the pre-publication version at: http://www.cde.ca.gov/ci/sc/cf/)

California ELA/ELD Framework for Public Schools K-12: California Department of Education. Curriculum Frameworks and Instructional Resources Division. English Language Arts/ English Language Development Framework for California Public Schools Kindergarten Through Grade Twelve. Sacramento: n.p., 2015. Print. (Retrieved from: http://www.cde.ca.gov/ci/rl/cf/elaeldfrmwrkchptrs2014.asp)

Unlocking Learning: Science as a Lever for English Learner Equity: Feldman, Sarah, and Veronica Flores Malagon. Unlocking Learning: Science as a Lever for English Learner Equity. Rep. N.p.: Ed-Trust West, 2017. Print. (also retrieved from https://west.edtrust.org/resource/unlocking-learning-science-lever-english-learner-equity/)

How People Learn: Bransford, John D., Ann L. Brown, and Rodney R. Cocking. "How people learn." (2000). (https://www.nap.edu/catalog/9853/how-people-learn-brain-mind-experience-and-school-expanded-edition)

Teaching Learning Collaborative (2017). http://www.k12alliance.org/tlc.php



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