The CCSS and Science Writing: What Science Teachers Should Care About

Posted on June 20th, 2012 by Deborah Jordan and Sam Spiegel

If you teach science, you should be paying attention to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects. The last section of the document is explicitly written for Grade 6-12 teachers in content areas other than English language arts (ELA). This section articulates reading and writing standards that students should experience through their specific content (e.g., science in science class). Therefore, science educators must understand the expectations set by the CCSS in regard to science. These standards are not asking science teachers to become ELA teachers; however, we are being challenged to apprentice students in the kinds of writing with which scientists are engaged. While the process might be demanding and a bit messy, we need to do our part to better prepare our students for the challenges they will face as they enter college and the workplace.

In this blog entry we will 1) highlight the College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Writing, 2) identify the two key text types and purposes for writing in science, and 3) clarify differences between argumentation and explanatory/informational text to support achievement of the CCSS.

First, here are the College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Writing. They are important to science teachers because they provide broad standards that define the skills and understanding that all students must demonstrate in science as well as other content areas.

    Text Types and Purposes
  1. Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.
  2. Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.
  3. Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences.
  4. Production and Distribution of Writing
  5. Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.
  6. Develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach.
  7. Use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing and to interact and collaborate with others.
  8. Research to Build and Present Knowledge
  9. Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects based on focused questions, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.
  10. Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, assess the credibility and accuracy of each source, and integrate the information while avoiding plagiarism.
  11. Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.
  12. Range of Writing
  13. Write routinely over extended time frames (time for research, reflection, and revision) and shorter time frames (a single sitting or a day or two) for a range of tasks, purposes, and audiences.

Second, the two key text types/purposes for writing in science as identified by the Writing Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects (WHST) 6-12 are

  1. writing arguments focused on science content, and
  2. writing informative/explanatory texts.

These two types of writing represent the kinds of writing practiced by scientists. Incorporating this type of writing and thinking has been encouraged in science since the introduction of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Benchmarks for Science Literacy (1993) and the National Research Council (NRC) National Science Education Standards (1995). Often it is incorporated into goals around the Nature of Science or apprenticing as a scientist. As science students engage in writing it should be authentic to the content of science rather than considered "add-on" assignments. To achieve this level of writing in science classes, students need opportunities to practice and improve on the skills and understanding of writing like a scientist (further defined in WHST Standards 4-10). Scaffolded experiences need to be embedded into your science curricula to support on-going development of these writing skills.

Last, there has been some confusion in the world of science education about these two types/purposes for writing in science because of terminology. Science education literature has used two terms, "scientific explanation" and "scientific argument," as a way to organize writing involving claim, evidence, reasoning, and counterclaim. Here are WHST standards #1 and #2 side-by-side.

Arguments Informative/explanatory texts

#1. Write arguments focused on discipline-specific content.

  1. Introduce claim(s) about a topic or issue, acknowledge and distinguish the claim(s) from alternate or opposing claims, and organize the reasons and evidence logically.
  2. Support claim(s) with logical reasoning and relevant, accurate data and evidence that demonstrate an understanding of the topic or text, using credible sources.
  3. Use words, phrased, and clauses to create cohesion and clarify the relationships among claims(s), counterclaims, reasons, and evidence.
  4. Establish and maintain a formal style.
  5. Provide a concluding statement or section that follows from and supports the argument presented.

#2. Write informative/explanatory texts, including the narration of historical events, scientific procedures/experiments, or technical processes.

  1. Introduce a topic clearly, previewing what is to follow; organize ideas, concepts, and information into broader categories as appropriate to achieving purpose; include formatting (e.g., headings), graphics (e.g., charts, tables), and multimedia when useful to aiding comprehension.
  2. Develop the topic with relevant, well-chosen facts, definitions, concrete details, quotations, or other information and examples.
  3. Use appropriate and varied transitions to create cohesion and clarify the relationships among ideas and concepts.
  4. Use precise language and domain-specific vocabulary to inform about or explain the topic.
  5. Establish and maintain a formal style and objective tone.
  6. Provide a concluding statement or section that follows from and supports the information or explanation presented.

WHST standard #1 (argument) is looking for writing that explicitly incorporates claim, evidence, reasoning, and counterclaims. So that means that you use WHST 1 (argument) whenever you assign writing that involves a clear relationship among claim(s), counterclaim(s), evidence, and reasoning whether you call this a "scientific argument" or "scientific explanation." While explanatory text may be part of an argument (for example, applying knowledge of a scientific theory or principle as reasoning) the main purpose for writing an argument is to develop a scientifically persuasive document supporting a claim that is based on scientific evidence.

WHST standard #2 is more "report-like." That is, you use that standard when you ask students to convey information without explicitly making a claim and supporting it with evidence and reasoning. The purpose of this type of writing is to share or report currently held scientific facts and details about a topic or concept without developing an argument. The written document is intended to relay information accurately (scientifically) and clearly.

As you engage students in writing to meet WHST standards, it is important to share the purpose for writing as well as clear expectations. That is, an argument should include claim, evidence, reasoning, and counterclaims; whereas, informative/explanatory text should explain or inform without the added burden of developing argument. The clarity of purpose and expectations will help students in learning the intended skills and also in recognizing the difference between the types of writing they will be asked to accomplish.