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Reading & Writing in Science

Five strategies for writing killer evidence to support a claim in science

write-evidence-in-science

If I told you the Pixar movie Cars is all about learning how to be selfless, could you give me evidence from the movie to prove it? Of course you could! Can your middle school students? Probably. Cars is a story that’s entertaining and easy to follow. But let me tell you what… trying to get middle school students to use data evidence to support their claim in science is a whole different beast. 

The truth is, a lot of students struggle to find and use evidence in science correctly. So, how do we fix it? 

The struggle with CER

I hated teaching CER strategies in science for a long time. No matter how many times I said, “use evidence to support your claim,” very few kids gave me quality evidence. Oftentimes, my students had the correct ideas without articulating them with correct evidence. 

what-is-a-claim-in-science

I was looking for hard evidence, numbers, comparisons and instead getting evidence that sounded more like this: 

The penny with water only dropped on it held the most water. 

It wasn’t specific enough. I could tell my 7th and 8th graders were really trying. Hard. But it just wasn’t enough. 

If this sounds like you, and your students, this evidence writing lesson will help you so much!

I used commercials to get kids used to the idea of being specific and paying attention to details. If you haven’t heard of using commercials to teach CER, Beakers and Ink gives some very fun examples! 

It worked! Kids loved it, and it did hit the point home that they needed to have evidence to support their claim. But when I asked for evidence in a scientific context, it didn’t translate well.

All evidence is not created equal

Evidence is unassumingly tricky for science teachers. Maybe it’s just me who thinks that, but I doubt it. In my opinion, there are a few reasons for this. Students are expected to support their claim with evidence in science and ELA. The difference is in the technicality of the evidence we’re asking students to find and use. 

I’ve walked into more ELA classes than I can count where the teacher was explicitly teaching how to find and use specific types of evidence to support a claim.

If students are supporting their claim based on character traits, the teacher spends a lot of time teaching what examples of character traits are, where to find them in a story, and how to use them to support their claim.

If students are reading nonfiction to find evidence to support a claim in their writing, they learn strategies to do so. 

data-table-in-science
Struggling to get your students to write good evidence to support their claim in science? Grab the perfect lesson here!

Evidence in Science is different

Using evidence to support a claim in science is so different because teachers give examples of what evidence should look and sound like. Rarely do we explicitly teach kids how to draw quality evidence from data. The kind of evidence we want in science uses math skills. Our students don’t explicitly learn that.  

I think this is why my students did so well with commercials. They knew how to find evidence in an ELA context – the commercials. I still use commercials for a good claim, evidence, reasoning example. But, I’ve learned that it’s an engagement tool and science teachers need to follow up with some explicit instruction for science evidence. 

The six key to writing evidence

So, I’ve convinced you that students need a little more help from us in terms of writing evidence. It’s time to teach your middle school science students how to really draw information from data! 

I’ve come up with six different types of evidence that students can pull from a data table to support their claim in science. My goal is always to get students to use hard numbers in their evidence. Think of the following as claim, evidence, reasoning sentence starters… but these ones are just for the evidence portion. 

Use measuring words.

Obviously this isn’t a sentence starter and isn’t an official strategy. Asking students to use measuring words helps them write evidence better. Making sure students include words like faster, farther, more, or increase helps them form correct evidence.

1. Compare the average.

Students can (and should) find the average of all their trials at the end of their investigation and then compare. An example of this would be: 

On average, the 16 pound bowling ball knocked down four more pins than the 10 pound bowling ball. 

2. Compare the trials.

By looking at the whole trials instead of the individual numbers, they can see how many total trials had outcomes that went one way or another. An example of this would be: 

Three out of four trials showed strawberries grown in direct sunlight produced more strawberries than those grown in shade. 

3. Find the “at least”.

The goal for this example is to show the difference between results in the trials. It’s a little tricky because you want to also compare trials, but here’s an example. 

In five out of six trials, students who drew their vocabulary words remembered at least 16% more words on a quiz than students who did not draw them. 

4. Look at individual trials.

claim-evidence-reasoning-sentence-starter-for-claim-in-science

Here, students look at the result from one trial to use as evidence to support their claim in science. Be careful, sometimes students will use this to make their point instead of supporting the true outcome. 

Trial three showed mice who ate sugar traveled through the maze 15 seconds faster than the mice who didn’t eat sugar. 

5. Tell the total.

As students are looking at their data table, have them look at the average totals and simply use those totals as evidence. Of course, we’d like to see students write more, but this is a great starting point. Here is an example: 

The penny held an average of 21.5 drops of soapy water and 37.2 drops of regular water. 

Don’t these five tips sound awesome? Save yourself some time and and grab this zero prep lesson to help your students master writing evidence to support a claim in science!

Use evidence to support a claim in science

I often think we forget students need to grapple with content more than once. Maybe forget isn’t the right word, but we think because we told our students, showed them an example, or know they learned it somewhere else, they got it. Even if we do tell them over and over, there’s a good chance they still won’t remember it.

So instead we tell them to “use evidence to support their claim” without giving them quality tools to do it successfully. 

My charge to you is this. Spend just a little bit of time teaching your students evidence skills so they can successfully use that evidence to support their claim in science. 

Reading & Writing in Science, Scientific Inquiry, Uncategorized

How to Use Picture Books to Teach Food Chains

pond-circle-food-chain-artwork

I remember the transition from picture books to “real” books. Somewhere between The Magic Treehouse series and Hatchet, the pictures slowly disappeared from the books I was reading. And while this is a totally good and normal process, there’s something exciting about opening a book and seeing pictures. So why wouldn’t we as teachers harness that nostalgia and use picture books in our teaching? This is my all time favorite list of picture books to teach food chains and food webs!

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The Case for Using Picture Books in your Middle School Classroom

Picture books are pretty simple on the outside. What makes them a powerful tool in your classroom is that simplicity. They’re not intimidating. Whether your students are high achievers or struggling learners, they love being read to. 

What I think I love most about using picture books to teach middle school science is that it has the ability to break down, and even scaffold, content and vocabulary that can initially be tough for kids to get the hang of. But with a guided read aloud, these science concepts can easily be highlighted by the teacher and are usually emphasized by pictures. 

Without further ado, these are my personal favorite best picture books to teach food chains and food webs!

Who Eats What? 

Who eats what picture book about food chains

The name says it all. This is a picture book about food chains and food webs. I love how simple this book starts and slowly scaffolds into complex food webs. The author really focuses on the complexity of a marine food webs about halfway through, including producers and consumers. The end of the book shares about how humans can impact food webs, using the example of otters killed for their fur.

If you use this picture book to teach food chains and food webs, ask students to make a venn diagram showing the differences and similarities. You can also ask students to compare and contrast  land and marine food webs.

Pond Circle 

This is one of my favorite picture books to teach food chains. While simple, there are a lot of different directions you can go with this book in a science classroom. We open up to algae in a pond, that is eaten by a mayfly, that is eaten by a beetle, who is eaten by a frog. The food chain continues. This picture book about food chains follows one very long chain all the way up to a coyote. 

If this book is about a pond food chain, how can it be so versatile? First, and very simply, it is a basic food chain. Talk about the idea of where each organism gets their energy and how long the food chain is. The raccoon eats owl eggs. Is that the same as eating an owl? Why or why not? 

My favorite way to incorporate this book is after we’ve learned about trophic levels. I read the book once, we talk about it, and then I ask them to make a trophic level pyramid using all the organisms from the book. I love hanging their trophic level pyramids on bulletin boards because they look so good! 

What’s for Dinner? Quirky, Squirmy Poems about the Animal World

whats for dinner picture book about food chains

What’s for dinner? Is a different book than the others. There are 29 short poems about food chains and food webs. The poems are witty, funny, informative, and right on with your middle school student’s humor! Trust me, they will love it. And while these poems are entertaining, this picture book teaches about food chains and food webs with great accuracy. 

This book is fun to use in stations or a carousel type of activity. Copy the poems you want to use and hang them around the room or set up stations. Create quick questions or activities based on the poems you choose. Students will LOVE this activity and learn some stuff too! 

Check out this free food chains and food webs silly story activity designed for middle school students!

Hey Diddle Diddle: A Food Chain Tale

hey-diddle-diddle-food-chain-picture-book

I really like this book to teach about food chains because it is just a funny story. Each one of the animals has a small part and something clever to say. This picture book about food chains highlights a couple of very small food chains with great images and catchy rhymes. I also enjoy that it includes a few lines about each animal’s adaptations. It’s a very fun and clever book.

Everything You Need to Know About Middle School Science in One Big Notebook

ace-science-notebook-picture-books-to-teach-food-chains

Okay, this one isn’t exactly about food chains and food webs, but it sure is great! I use this book all the time. You’ll find every topic you’d ever need to teach about in middle school science in plain english for you or your students! I love copying this text to scaffold or accommodate for students. Each topic is written in a way that defines every word a student may not know and includes so many pictures. There is a whole section in this picture book about Interdependence and the Cycling of Energy and Matter, which is exactly where you’ll find all your information on food chains and food webs. 

There you have it. My ultimate list of picture books about food chains and food webs. Here is my challenge to you. Incorporate more picture books into your middle school science lessons. You’d be surprised at the engagement you get when you pull out a picture book instead of a text book.

Looking for a free Food Chains and Food Web activity for your science class? Check out this silly story!

food-web-activity-silly-story
Life Science, Reading & Writing in Science

Teach Summarizing Skills In Science

Use a doc cam to teach summarizing skills to middle school students

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“Summarize this passage. Just write it in your own words. No, you can’t just change some of the words to make it yours. Is this copy and pasted?” I’m sure you’ve said those things. It’s what teachers say when they want students to summarize a passage. I’ve realized by the time students get to middle school, they have heard all those common phrases I just shared, but rarely have we spent the time to actually teach summarizing skills. 

So, how do content area teachers teach summarizing skills? 

Summarizing is a critical thinking skill. There is not one single answer. It requires students to really think about what they’re reading and understand it. Plus, summarizing is hard. There’s no time in the day for a science teacher to add summarizing to their plate. Students should know how to do it, right? 

Wrong. As a content area teacher, I knew it was my assumed responsibility to make sure my students were reading and writing. Summarizing creates an opportunity for students to do both, and trust me… your ELA teachers will love you for incorporating it.

This fool-proof method of teaching middle school students summarizing skills is easy. I was actually pretty impressed with what my students came up with. The key is breaking it down into bite-sized chunks and presenting it in a way that is not intimidating. 

PREPPING TO TEACH SUMMARIZING

1. Find your text. 

I really like using Newsea to find informational text. There are a lot of articles you can access for free when you make an account. Furthermore, each article has multiple versions including  3-4 different reading levels you can choose from. When you are just starting to teach summarizing, I’d suggest starting with a slightly lower reading level. You want students to be able to focus on the summarizing skill without being overwhelmed by the text itself. 

2. Format your text. 

Find nonfiction articles to teach summarizing on Newsela.com
Use Google Docs to clean up articles to make them easier for students to read. Remember, this step is for classroom use only!

Hear me out. This is not completely a requirement, but I do like doing it. When a paper looks organized and has few distractions, students feel comfortable with the simplicity. Here’s how I do it. 

  • First, copy and paste the text from the article into a Google Doc.
  • Second, clean it up. Delete any stray words and fix any funky paragraphs. Make sure there are actually paragraph breaks. Bold the article title. If you can bring the main photo onto the Google Doc, that is awesome. This will also help students feel less overwhelmed. Instead of looking at a huge page of words, they’ll see a picture. 
  • Next, space it out. Go to FORMAT > LINE & PARAGRAPH SPACING in your toolbar at the top of your Doc. Use the line spacing to make sure you’re giving students more room than single space. I would suggest 1.2 line spacing and I’d check the option that says “Add Space After Paragraph.” This makes your paragraph breaks a little more noticeable. I also like to make sure paragraphs aren’t too long or too short. Too short and you can’t summarize but too long and it’s really overwhelming.  
  • Finally, do some tweaking. Again, not completely necessary. If I’m running onto a third page, I like to adjust the margins or the font size to keep it on one page – front and back. If you’re really tight on space, you can delete a paragraph or two. There is nothing wrong with that. 

Need some help? Watch the video below!

3. Print

You’ve finished finding and formatting your article, now you should print it. I also use a template that helps students stay organized. You need one article and one template per student. 

We’ve got everything ready, and now we need to actually teach summarizing skills. 

Introducing summarizing to your students. 

The reality is, students know how to summarize informally, so draw that out of them. Start by asking students to give you an overview of a popular movie. Or if you’re feeling up to it, ask them to give you an overview of a movie featured in an Olaf Presents episode, and then show them that clip of Olaf summarizing the movie. This is such a fun way to engage them! 

Up until this point, try to keep summarizing out of your vocabulary. Kids instantly check out because it’s traditionally so hard. But, as you pass out the article and template, mention that summarizing is a skill they know how to do, but it’s important to learn how to summarize text. 

Circle key words while summarizing a non-fiction text.

How to teach summarizing skills.

1. Read the whole article.

I’d suggest doing this out loud. Ask basic questions like what the article is about or some words they recognize. Maybe ask about something they thought was interesting. Just start talking about it. 

2. Draw a physical line between the paragraphs and number each one.

The reasoning for this is two fold. First, it makes each paragraph much less intimidating because you’re chunking the information for them. Second, the numbers correspond to a space on the template where they will actually write their summary. 

3. Read the first paragraph and circle 5-7 key words.

These can be words that are repeated or words they find important . I like asking them to circle words they are unique to that paragraph. For example, moon might be used in every paragraph in an article about the moon phases. They don’t need to circle it every time, although they can. However, if illuminated shows up for the first time in the third paragraph, that is a great word to circle. 

4. Write down all the circled words on the template in the first section.

Teach summarizing skills by using key words to create a new sentence.

This should give them a good idea of what the main idea of the paragraph is about.

5. Read the paragraph one more time.

Next, Ask them to put the article away and look at the 5-7 words on their template. 

6. Use those 5-7 key words to write one sentence.

Your students might use all of the words or they might not. But they’ll have one full sentence that is actually written in their own words and is a summary of the first paragraph. 

7. Repeat!

After each paragraph is summarized, students will move onto the next paragraph and repeat the steps. Read, circle, read, write. 

You’ll find after students have summarized each paragraph, they’ll have a summary of the entire article when they combine all of their mini-summaries. 

Tips for Classroom Management

Teaching students how to summarize is hard. I suggest a few things as you are actually teaching this skill. 

First, do the first two or even three paragraphs with students. I love using a doc cam (This one is my favorite if you’re looking for one!). Students should follow along with you, but you can gradually release control as you move from one paragraph to the next. When you move to the second or third paragraph, ask students to write their own sentence, give them a few minutes, and see if anyone wants to share.

Next, I’m all for working while students work. This is not one of those lessons. Plan to walk around and answer questions. I like to tell students, “raise your hand when you’ve completed a sentence and I’ll check it.” When I come across a good summary, I like to ask if I can read it out loud. Students benefit from hearing other student’s summaries.

Finally, this is NOT something I’d ever give for homework, at least until they’ve become very familiar with it. If most students aren’t done, plan to finish it the next day. The goal is to teach summarizing skills, not overwhelm students. It’s hard enough as is. And trust me… I’ve overwhelmed a few too many students for my liking. 

My promise to you is that teaching your students to summarize nonfiction text will no longer be like pulling teeth. With the right format, you can train your students how to summarize fluently and, hopefully, never hear, “Do we need to write this in our own words?” again! 

Still have questions?! Keep reading! 

Frequently Asked Questions

When should I teach summarizing to my students? 

Start teaching them right away! The first time you teach them, it will probably take a whole class period – just to teach and model the process. After that, it will take less and less time. In addition, as students become more comfortable with this process, writing summaries for a would make a great (and easy) sub plan. But only when they know what they’re doing. 

What if my students say it’s too hard?

First of all, yes. It is hard. Not much in life is easy! I didn’t really learn how to take in a lot of information and summarize it until my first year teaching. It would have been a really great skill in college! 

Second, I sometimes let students work in partners or groups to talk about how to form their summaries using the key words. Hearing other’s conversations can help students who don’t quite get it yet. It also gives them a safe place to work through their ideas and piggyback off of each other. If the whole class is struggling, try an article that has a lower lexile level. You can even start with something they’re more familiar with, like Goldilocks and the Three Bears. 

How can I make this more engaging? 

Using high interest articles can definitely help to teach summarizing. One year, I used an article about whale poop! Kids loved it! 

You can also set up rotating stations. I’ve placed students in groups and given all the groups 3-4 minutes to come up with a summary sentence for paragraph one. Then, two students from each group get up and move to the next group and I give them another 3-4 minutes to write a summary for paragraph two. With this set-up, students get to talk to a lot of different people and they get to take breaks and move around the classroom. Read about how I use grouping cards for this type of activity!

Middle School, Reading & Writing in Science