Pairing Literacy and Science to Effectively Teach Argumentation by Judine Keplar & Carrie Launius

Most elementary teachers, have many opportunities to learn best practices in English Language Arts (ELA), but few in science. Three years ago David Crowther, NSTA past president (2016–17), said in his conference keynote, “Of the eight practices of science and engineering, four of them are language intensive and thus require students to use multiple domains of language, including nonverbal modalities, and a range of language registers,” This challenged our thinking about how the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in English Language Arts (ELA) taught argumentation to elementary students. Argumentation is not mentioned anywhere until middle school, yet the Science and Engineering Practices (SEPs) require students to not only think about argumentation, but also to begin to practice it as young as kindergarten.

Lee (2017)[1] notes another key difference in contrast to the CCSS, in which the term argument is withheld until grade 6: The NGSS expect children from as early as kindergarten to construct an argument with evidence. Thus, “the practice of arguing from evidence is expected consistently throughout K–12.” (p. 97) Since the NGSS indicate that argumentation can be taught and used in the elementary grades and that asking our young scientists to engage in argumentation isn’t an impossible task, the question becomes How?

After examining the NGSS progressions for the SEPs, it is quite evident that argumentation needs to be introduced at the start. For most elementary teachers, ELA is what they know, so we decided to use a book to help students identify argumentation, and see if they would be able to make claims about the evidence that is presented in the book.  We knew that integrating ELA and science was going to be a challenge.

One book that helps to illustrate argumentation and collection of evidence is the classic Starry Messenger by Peter Sis (ISBN 978-0374470272). Written for grades 1–6, this book tells the story of Galileo Galilei and how he used the findings of Copernicus to reiterate that the universe as he knew it was heliocentric. Copernicus realized he did not have enough evidence to proclaim his findings, but he took copious notes so that someone else could use them to not only make the claim that the Earth revolves around the Sun, but also have the evidence to prove the claim’s validity.

The book presents three opportunities for students to identify types of arguments. Although we know from history that religion played a major part in the belief that the Earth was the center of the universe, the book only briefly touches on the point, saying, “It’s tradition.” This gives us the first opportunity to discuss arguments. At this point, we ask our students questions to help them begin to identify differences among arguments. For younger students, ask, “Just because it is a tradition, does that make it a fact or true?” Ask them to further explain what they believe. For students in grades 3–5, questions should be more open-ended.

The second opportunity to discuss argumentation comes at the point in the book when Copernicus has gathered many findings, but says he cannot publish them. Ask students, “Why do they think Copernicus is not able to make a claim and argue about his findings? What might he be missing?” Students in grades K–5 will be able to discuss what they think. During the discussion, students will be presenting their own arguments. Ask them to give examples from the book supporting their thinking.

Galileo had evidence to support that the Sun was the center of the solar system, but he was persecuted for his findings. Students have the opportunity to not only argue whether he was treated fairly, but more importantly, why his discoveries were accurate and what evidence he had to support his findings.

Asking high-level questions like What are the differences among the various arguments presented in the book? Provide evidence to support your claim; and If you were born at the time of Galileo, which side would you take and what evidence would you provide? allow students to engage in SEP at the elementary level.

K–2 grade band

  • Identify arguments that are supported by evidence.
  • Distinguish between opinions and evidence in one’s own explanations.

3–5 grade band

  • Distinguish among facts, reasoned judgment based on research findings, and speculation in an explanation.

By using trade books to engage students in the SEP of argumentation of evidence, they will have a plethora of opportunities to use argumentation well before they are asked to do it in an ELA classroom. Christine Royce, NSTA retiring president (2019–2020), offered the thought that “Explicitly modeling for students and providing them opportunities to learn about and compare/contrast the use of evidence is one such opportunity to utilize a cross- discipline practice. The increased connections between experiences in which the students participate assists them in transferring their learning. Finding the overlap between argumentation in the science classroom and literacy studies will provide students opportunities to develop, consider, and respond to ideas in writing, verbally and scientifically.”

We are reminded of this every day as we examine the graphic below.


[1] Common Core State Standards for ELA/Literacy and Next Generation Science Standards: Convergences and Discrepancies Using Argument as an Example, Okhee Lee

Judine Keplar is English Language Arts Curriculum Specialist for St. Louis Public Schools in St. Louis, Misssouri, and also serves as the current president of the Board of Education in Belleville Public School District 118 in Belleville, Illinois. She is a passionate promoter of cross-curricular literacy at all grade levels and enjoys her work writing curriculum and providing professional development around all things literacy-related. She resides in Swansea, Illinois, with her husband and two children.

Carrie Launius is Science Curriculum Specialist for St. Louis Public Schools in St. Louis, Missouri. She previously was the NSTA District XI Director and president of Science Teachers of Missouri (STOM). She believes using trade books to support science learning is essential for students. She was instrumental in developing and implementing the Best STEM Book Award for NSTA-Children’s Book Council. Her passion is supporting teachers and helping them grow professionally. She resides in St. Louis near her two grown children and with her son and four dogs.

Note: This article is featured in the September issue of  Next Gen Navigator, a monthly e-newsletter from NSTA delivering information, insights, resources, and professional learning opportunities for science educators by science educators on the Next Generation Science Standards and three-dimensional instruction.  Click here to sign up to receive the Navigator every month.

Visit NSTA’s NGSS@NSTA Hub for hundreds of vetted classroom resourcesprofessional learning opportunities, publicationsebooks and more; connect with your teacher colleagues on the NGSS listservs (members can sign up here); and join us for discussions around NGSS at an upcoming conference.

The mission of NSTA is to promote excellence and innovation in science teaching and learning for all.

Future NSTA Conferences

2019 Fall Conferences

This entry was posted in Next Generation Science Standards and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Pairing Literacy and Science to Effectively Teach Argumentation by Judine Keplar & Carrie Launius

  1. CYNTHIA Brook Crolius-Ross says:

    I want a webinar on this! It was an interested read. I would like more examples of how to pair literacy with scientific argumentation. I have had some training with using data from experiments to form a CER argument. But more often then not the evidence we have are from books and articles and I would like to learn more about helping students write arguments as well as the evaluati ok n of arguments given in the Galileo book as described.

    • Carrie Launius says:

      Hi Cynthia!
      For very young readers, you might consider starting with the book “SWAP,” by Steve Light. In the story, a child has an old ship and a sad friend. To make the ship better he swaps “stuff” with people in town. There are not many words in the book but it is a great book to use argumentation to discuss whether the swap is “worth it.” Other books that you might consider is “Wangari’s Tree of Peace” by Jeanette Winter. The book tells the story of Wangari bringing the trees back to Kenya. A lot of social justice and character education is in this book with science. Students can use argumentation to take a stand. “The Coral Kingdom” by Laura Knowles and Jennie Webber also works well with argumentation. Using the coral reef as the phenomena students can defend a stand they take on saving the reefs.

  2. Alecia Kimball says:

    Judine and Carrie,

    I am a fourth-year at Wartburg College, getting my bachelors in Elementary Education with an endorsement in reading. After I graduate, my hope is to find a job teaching third grade. I want to start off by saying this was very beneficial to me and hit right at home. Teaching argumentation at a young age allows students to dive deeper into their thinking and also form great discussions based on what they believe or evidence that they have found to support what they are talking about. As a future elementary educator, I want to use trade books with my students because I feel that they would be able to make use of opportunities that involve argumentation because of the pictures that are involved they can use what they know to connect it to what they are learning. As I prepare for my future as a teacher, I will make use of science standards that require students at a younger age to help teach future skills that are required by the Common Core Standards at an older age. I really liked the quote that Christine Royce said based on finding the overlap between the science classroom and literacy studies. I do not think this could have been put into better words.

    After reading through this and understanding your perspective, do you believe that there is a certain age to start prompting students with open-ended questions? With open-ended questions, I think students have the ability to express themselves and talk about what they believe in based on the information they are learning. Is there a specific time that you would suggest to not use open-ended questions? What are some specific trade books that you would recommend using in the science classroom to connect to other subjects? Thank you for giving examples of how to pair science with literacy based on argumentation and thank you for putting this out for people to read. I do think this will help those that are teaching or who are going to be teachers be better and successful.

    With much appreciation,


    Alecia Kimball
    Wartburg College Class of 2020
    Elementary Education Major
    Wartburg Women’s Basketball

  3. Carrie Launius says:

    Hi Alecia,
    Thanks for the kind words. First off, Christine Royce is truly an expert on the topic of science and literacy. She is my “go-to” person when I am writing.
    I recommend you look at NSTA’s books lists – Best STEM and Outstanding Trade Book if you are interested in finding great books. The categories are very different which allows for a wide variety to choose.
    At very young ages we ask students questions – it is never too early to ask children to think, justify and give their perspective. This will strengthen there thinking for later years. Using books also gives students strong background knowledge of something they might now have experienced. In urban schools, where students often have limited experiences, I try to have a trade book for almost every topic in science!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *