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Even before the advent of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), teachers of science and social studies were being called upon to help their students become better readers and writers. Now, specific CCSS for Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science & Technical Subjects in Grades 6-12 (1) define performances and provide guidance for this expectation. In this article, we will describe a method for incorporating many of the Grade 9-10 Literacy in Science & Technical Subjects expectations into introductory chemistry investigations. Our method is based upon the Science Writing Heuristic (SWH) described by Keys, Hand, Prain, and Collins (2) and consistent with Science & Engineering Practices (SEPs) as used in Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). In addition, we will provide ideas for locating the outside sources recommended by NGSS.

Since the publication of CCSS, a few organizations and projects have provided materials and structure for integrating science and literacy to meet the expectations. Notable among these is the Literacy Design Collaborative (3), which supports the creation and dissemination of teacher-created literacy modules and mini-tasks in science and other content areas. Modules are short units in which students complete a writing-intensive performance task after reading about a particular science topic or problem, while mini-tasks are short lessons to help students develop a particular literacy skill within a content area. ChemMatters, an AACT member benefit, is also a useful resource for infusing literacy into introductory chemistry.(4)

The approach we outline here differs from the resources described above because it draws the material for writing and analysis from both outside reading and students’ own laboratory and classroom investigations to retain a focus on learning core science ideas. It is grounded in SWH, which can be described in many ways, including as “a process that gives students multiple opportunities to develop conceptual understanding by integrating practical laboratory work with peer group discussion, writing, and reading.”(5) The SWH student template for investigations has eight sections and accompanying key questions:

  • Beginning ideas—What are my questions?
  • Tests—What did I do?
  • Observations—What did I see?
  • Claims—What can I claim?
  • Evidence—How do I know? Why am I making these claims?
  • Reading—How do my ideas compare with other ideas?
  • Reflection—How have my ideas changed?
  • Writing—What is the best explanation that clarifies what I have learned?

To illustrate how to incorporate literacy standards into a scientific investigation, we selected "Investigating Matter 6B.4 Alpha, Beta, and Gamma Radiation" from Chemistry in the Community (6) as a model student activity. (Refer to the original and revised versions of the activity as you read the article.) This investigation involves testing the effects of distance and shielding on the penetration of three different types of nuclear radiation. This topic is novel and interesting to students and, as a scientific development that took place in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many of the original accounts of discovery are accessible from published journals.(7)(8)(9)

We used a two-stage approach for the revision process. The first, or preparatory, stage was concerned with identifying key science concepts (NGSS disciplinary core ideas) and organizing the investigation to allow students to use an inquiry approach consistent with NGSS. The second stage used this foundation and the SWH structure to integrate reading and writing to further conceptual understanding and address CCSS as well as additional NGSS SEPs.

Preparing the investigation for SWH

Since the ultimate goal of an investigation is to develop students’ scientific understanding, the first step in the redesign process is to identify the specific conceptual understandings that students should construct as a result of the investigation.

▶    In the nuclear radiation investigation, students should come to understand that distance and shielding affect the intensity of radiation and that these effects depend upon the type of radiation source as well as the materials used for shielding.

The next step is to look at the investigation for opportunities to incorporate the first three SEPs (we’ll address the other practices later in conjunction with CCSS expectations), as defined in A Framework for K-12 Science Education (10) (the Framework):

  • Asking questions (for science) and defining problems (for engineering)
  • Developing and using models
  • Planning and carrying out investigations

To do this, consider, for instance, whether students could define the question for investigation or plan part of the procedure.

▶   For the nuclear radiation investigation, students are asked to make a prediction about the relationship between distance and intensity and design a procedure to test that prediction. They are also tasked with writing and investigating another scientific question using the investigation materials.

The final preparatory step is to restructure and rewrite student instructions to reflect an inquiry approach to science and SEPs one decides to incorporate. We recommend using the steps of the SWH to reorganize what was traditionally listed under “Procedure.” This means starting the investigation with a “Question to Investigate” or “Beginning Ideas” and asking students to contribute to these ideas whenever possible. The step-by-step portion of the procedure could be termed “Tests” as in the SWH, or “Gathering Evidence” to hint that students will ultimately use the results of their investigation to make and support a claim.

In the alpha, beta, and gamma investigation, the step titled Procedure became Gathering Evidence and Part III was transformed from the text on the left (labeled Part 3) to the text on the right:

Part 3: Shielding Effects

  1. Read the following procedure and construct a data table suitable for recording all relevant data.
  2. Using forceps, place a radioactive source designated by your teacher on the ruler to give nearly a full-scale reading.
  3. Take a typical reading over 30 s. Determine the number of counts per minute (cpm), correcting for background radiation. Record your actual and corrected values
  4. Place a glass sheet between the source and the detector. Do not change the distance between the detector and the source. Take an average reading over 30 s. Then determine and record the corrected number of counts per minute.
  5. Place a second glass sheet between the source and the detector. Take an average reading over 30 s. Determine and record the corrected number of counts per minute.
  6. Repeat Steps 21 and 22, using lead sheets rather than glass sheets.
  7. Wash your hands thoroughly and check your hands with a radiation monitor before leaving the laboratory.

Part III: Further Investigations
In this part you will conduct an additional investigation of your own design.

  1. Note the materials your teacher has provided to conduct this investigation.
  2. Think about one or two additional questions that relate to, or extend, the investigations you have already conducted using these ionizing radiation sources.
  3. Choose one question that you can address using the available equipment and materials. Write down the scientific question that you will investigate.
  4. Propose and write down a detailed procedure for your investigation.
  5. Conduct your investigation. Be sure to record all relevant data.

Using SWH to integrate literacy and enhance understanding

Now that the investigation is organized to encourage inquiry, the next step is to identify opportunities to integrate literacy. To accomplish this, use the crosswalk that we developed to summarize overlap and connections among SWH, SEPs, and CCSS for Literacy in Science & Technical Subjects. The crosswalk shows the CCSS standards that are most closely related to each step of SWH.

Beginning ideas
The first step in SWH is to clarify beginning ideas by forming questions about the investigation. This is also the SEP of asking questions. The ability to craft a testable question enables all the investigative work that follows. Looking at the crosswalk, the CCSS standards mapped to asking questions are (standards paraphrased here for brevity, see crosswalk for full standard): W8 Gather and integrate relevant information; W9 Draw evidence from informational texts for support; R2 Determine the central ideas and summarize a text; and R9 Compare findings among sources (including experiments).

These standards were selected because the Framework includes “establishing what is already known, and determining what questions have yet to be satisfactorily answered” as part of the expectation for the SEP of asking questions. Students need scaffolded practice in writing scientific questions. Examples from others’ investigations can serve as guides, but it is often difficult to find examples of research at an appropriate level for students. Research journals require a great deal of interpretation, which may be too challenging for many students, while news articles tend to discuss results and conclusions but obscure the process—and especially the original question. Students must therefore learn to work backwards to determine what the research question may have been.

On the topic of nuclear radiation, students could read The Radioactive Boy Scout (11), which describes a teen’s attempt at building a breeder reactor. This is an accessible article for high school students and students could be asked to examine it closely to determine the original investigation question. More advanced papers (12), including some by Ernest Rutherford (13), are relatively available online, however, it is easy for students to get lost in the language and mathematics of these accounts, so they should be used either for differentiation or with close teacher guidance.

After generating a question, the next SWH area of focus is “Tests” (known as “planning and carrying out investigations” in NGSS SEPs). There are several ways to enhance the students’ literacy in the planning and experimentation processes. Note that the crosswalk shows a reading standard—R3 Follow precisely a complex multistep procedure—as one of the relevant expectations. Thus even if students do not construct their own procedures, literacy can be developed by asking students to carefully follow instructions and redirecting them to the procedure rather than allowing them to ask the teacher or other students “what do I do next?” To address the W2 standard , students can be asked to write the steps of the investigation in their own words or to write out a procedure they have devised. Another way to improve students’ writing skills is to ask lab groups to prepare a written procedure for another lab team to use.

As noted earlier, in the alpha, beta, and gamma investigation, students are challenged to write and investigate a scientific question using the investigation materials.

During the investigation, students make observations and collect data. SWH asks, “What did I see?” and CCSS R7 expects that students will “Translate quantitative or technical information expressed in words in a text into visual form (e.g., a table or chart) and translate information expressed visually or mathematically (e.g., in an equation) into words.” For students to make meaning of their observations, they need to record relevant data in an organized manner. Deciding which data are useful and how best to record and organize them are skills that must be explicitly taught. Note also that in the crosswalk this section is linked to the SEPs of analyzing and interpreting data as well as using mathematical and computational thinking. How the data will be analyzed is a critical consideration to determine which data are collected and how they are organized.

▶  In the alpha, beta, and gamma investigation, students design their own data tables after thinking about the question to be answered. They also construct a graph to display their conclusions visually. Finally, they are asked to “Write a caption for the figure that would help someone else interpret this diagram;” in other words, translate this visual information into words.

Claims and Evidence
In SWH, making observations leads to making claims on the basis of evidence. As we show in the crosswalk, making claims and engaging in argument from evidence are only linked in a limited way to CCSS literacy standards W1 and W4. This is because the claims students make should be based on their own data and evidence at this point. They will consider the results and explanations of others later in the process. It is important, however, that students be taught to make a meaningful and defensible scientific claim. Like a scientific question, this claim must be disprovable with evidence.  

▶  In the nuclear radiation investigation, students are asked “Of the shielding materials tested, which do you conclude is the most effective in blocking radiation? Cite supporting evidence.” This question is a method of scaffolding claims-making. Students might alternatively be asked to make a claim about the relative effectiveness of the materials used in shielding radiation. At an even more advanced level, students might just be prompted to make a scientific claim about their results.

The last three steps of SWH require students to make meaning of their findings and communicate both their results and the results of their meaning-making process to others. Here literature searches are helpful, as students must look at others’ work to answer the question “How do my ideas compare to other ideas?” Again, though, finding relevant and age-appropriate articles takes time and may be very frustrating for students—and teachers. Places to look for resources include: digital periodical databases, trade publications, and websites and publications of professional organizations such as the American Chemical Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Science Teachers Association, and the Royal Society of Chemistry. Getting your school media specialist/librarian or literacy specialist involved in the process can be helpful. Often, they either know of age-appropriate sources unfamiliar to subject-matter teachers, or are happy to seek out resources. Another strategy for collecting reading materials is to keep an electronic list of books and articles that may be accessible to your students. Add to the list, filing by basic topic, whenever you come across a relevant reading. Starting small will make the task more manageable.

▶  Some articles that may help students compare ideas in the Alpha, Beta, and Gamma Radiation investigation include the ChemMatters articles, The radium girls – dialing up trouble (14) and Radioactivity: It’s a Natural (15), Shultis and Faw’s Radiation Shielding Technology (12), and Dronsfield and Ellis’ Radium – a key element in early cancer treatment (16).

Interestingly, neither CCSS nor NGSS SEPs explicitly address the idea of reflecting on what was learned or how students’ ideas have changed. We are in agreement with the authors of SWH that this metacognitive step is important to students’ development as learners.

▶  On the topic of radiation and shielding, students could be asked directly how their ideas about shielding and types of radiation changed, or simply asked to reflect upon what surprised them in this investigation and why. 

Finally, SWH concludes with the question “What is the best explanation that clarifies what I have learned?” This step correlates with almost every CCSS for Literacy in Science & Technical Subjects writing expectation (excluding narration) and is closely linked with the NGSS SEP “practice obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information.” At the time that our investigations were revised, none of these standards had yet been published, and, as written, the alpha, beta, and gamma radiation investigation does not explicitly address explanation. We found this to be the most challenging of the literacy connections to incorporate; as such, we encourage other teachers to devise and share creative approaches to developing student explanations.

▶  One option for incorporating explanation into the nuclear radiation investigation would be to ask students to use what they have learned to write guidelines for handling sources of nuclear radiation. Alternatively, because students have not yet learned about the structure of the nuclear radiation when they conduct this investigation, they could be asked to revisit the results after learning how alpha, beta, and gamma radiation differ. At that point, they could be asked to explain how their observed results are consistent with the characteristics of each type of radiation.

Our goal in this article is to provide an accessible method for incorporating CCSS and NGSS reading and writing expectations into introductory chemistry investigations. We hope this approach gives teachers another tool to integrate literacy into the chemistry classroom in a way that not only addresses standards, but enhances students’ processing of information and thus their understanding of chemistry.

A final hint

Start small. Think about one investigation that you want to revise­—start there. Even transforming one investigation each semester could make a big difference in how students approach reading and writing in science. In this article, we linked the model investigation to every NGSS SEP and CCSS expectation for illustration purposes only. It is more realistic to choose an expectation (or two) and use that as the focus for one investigation or one unit, and then later move on to another expectation in a different unit. Not only will this make your revision work more manageable, but students will also get targeted practice on each reading, writing, and investigating skill.


  1. National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers. Common Core State Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects 6–12. National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers, Washington, DC, 2010.
  2. Keys, C.W., Hand, B., Prain, V., & Collins, S. (1999). Using the science writing heuristic as a tool for learning from laboratory investigations in secondary science. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 36(10), 1065–1084.
  3. Library Design Collaborative. https://ldc.org/
  4. Bleam Jr., W., & Haas, S. (2014). ChemMatters: A Wealth of Information for Teachers and Students, Chemistry Solutions, September 2014. https://www.teachchemistry.org/content/aact/en/periodical.html
  5. Hand, B., & Keys, C. W. (1999). Inquiry investigation: A new approach to laboratory reports. The Science Teacher, 66(4), 27–29.
  6. American Chemical Society (2012). Chemistry in the Community, 6th edition. Powers, A. (ed). New York: W.H. Freeman.
  7. Thomson, J.J. (1896). The Röntgen rays. Nature 54(1396), 302-306.
  8. Rutherford, E. (1900). A radioactive substance emitted from Thorium compounds. Philosophical magazine 5 (49), 1-14.
  9. Becquerel, H. (1967). On radioactivity, a new property of matter, Nobel lecture, December 11, 1903, in: Nobel lectures. Physics 1901–1921, p. 52. Amsterdam: Elsevier.
  10. National Research Council. (2012). A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas. Committee on a Conceptual Framework for New K-12 Science Education Standards. Board on Science Education, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
  11. Silverstein, K. (1998) The Radioactive Boy Scout. Harper’s Magazine, November 1998, 59-73.
  12. Shultis, J.K., & Faw, R.E. (2005). Radiation Shielding Technology. Health Physics 88(4), 297-322.
  13. Rutherford, E. (1911). The scattering of alpha and beta particles by matter and the structure of the atom. Philosophical Magazine 21(5), 669-688.
  14. Curtis, B. (1998). The radium girls – dialing up trouble. ChemMatters 16(3), 13-15.
  15. Rohrig, B. (2000). Radioactivity: It’s a Natural. ChemMatters 18(2), 6-9.
  16. Dronsfield, A. & Ellis, P. (2011). Radium a key element in early cancer treatment. Education in Chemistry 48(2), 56-59