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I recently attended a conference where Arthur Beauchamp, the director of the Sacramento Area Science Project, presented the Science Literacy Framework as a tool for designing effective science instruction. He and colleagues have also published a book entitled Success in Science through Dialogue, Reading and Writing (1), which describes the framework in detail. The Science Literacy Framework supports science understanding by strategically incorporating literacy techniques in science lessons. Although “literacy” is in the name, this is not an attempt to hijack precious science instruction time for English and language arts; it is instead a way to make science teaching deeper, more engaging, and student-centered.

I’ve found that this framework helps me teach science more effectively. As a bonus, this framework also addresses the science and technical subjects in the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and the science and engineering practices in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). The framework involves skills such as asking questions, analyzing and interpreting data, constructing explanations, engaging in argument from evidence, and evaluating and communicating information.

The Science Literacy Framework combines the following four dimensions in the design of an effective science lesson:

  1. Engaging science helps students get excited about learning.
  2. Purposeful reading helps students make sense of others’ thoughts.
  3. Productive dialogue helps students make sense of their own thoughts.
  4. Meaningful writing helps students synthesize what they’ve learned.

Figure 1. The Science Literacy Framework for planning lessons.

The modifiers are important! When the framework is used well, students are purposeful and productive and write meaningfully. Students focus their thoughts, communicate clearly about science, and increase their understanding of the underlying concepts.

This framework has transformed the way I plan and organize my lessons. It take the seemingly random and disconnected “best practices” I have heard of and combine them in a coherent way that allows me to consistently plan using good pedagogy and great science. Using the framework helps me plan well-designed lessons without having to think about many different pedagogical ideas at the same time: The framework takes care of it. I simply choose a strategy from each of the four dimensions of the framework (I give some examples later) that I feel will best serve the purpose of the lesson. I’ve found that practicing and getting comfortable with a few strategies from each dimension allows me to be creative with how I combine them. The following are some of the most important best practices supported by the framework:

  • Using the “10-2 rule” put forward by Mary Budd Rowe, who demonstrated that student learning and retention both improve when students are given a chance to process what they’ve learned for a couple of minutes after about 10 minutes of instruction (2), thereby avoiding information overload.
  • Using a variety of instructional strategies to keep the class interesting and maintain appropriate pacing.
  • Appealing to many learning styles by incorporating oral, aural, visual, and kinesthetic activities.
  • Encouraging students to work both independently and collaboratively.
  • Incorporating frequent opportunities for formative assessment and feedback to inform both the student and teacher about the level of student understanding.
  • Increasing students’ ability to understand and evaluate scientific information and to use scientific practices as a way of learning about the natural world.
  • Moving teaching from the information frame (teacher as a source of information) to the sense-making frame (teacher as a facilitator of student knowledge construction) (1), increasing the student-centered nature of the class.

By engaging students in reading, writing, and speaking, teachers force them to engage with science. Students can write to learn science (3) because “language actively creates [conceptual] structures” (4). They construct their own meaning from what they observe, communicate that learning intelligently, and are more likely to retain this new knowledge.

In addition to the clear benefits to students, the Science Literacy Framework also allows the teacher to quickly gauge the depth of student understanding, identify misconceptions, and address incorrect thinking. These benefits have been demonstrated previously for student writing in science (5).

The individual strategies used in the framework are not new. However, combining strategies into a coherent system for planning lessons that address many best practices at once is what I’ve found most useful. A complete lesson plan about limiting reactants that I designed using the Science Literacy Framework is available in the AACT Classroom Resources. I encourage you to look at that lesson in conjunction with this article, as it will give you a concrete example of how the framework is used in the classroom.

Let’s take a closer look at each of the four dimensions of the Science Literacy Framework. For each dimension, I will describe one strategy in detail, use an example related to chemical equilibrium, and share my insights about how the strategy works in my classroom. I make reference to sources with more information about other strategies that fit into each dimension of the framework.

Engaging science

Engaging science activities help students get excited about learning via hands-on laboratory work, demonstrations, working with data, and discrepant events.

Figure 2. Equilibrium reaction forming [Fe(SCN)]2+. From left to right: the original equilibrium mixture, the mixture with additional SCN-, and the mixture with added C2O42-

In the case of dynamic equilibrium, an example of an engaging science activity is the formation of the red iron(III) thiocyanate complex ion ([Fe(SCN)]2+) from the colorless thiocyanate (SCN) and pale yellow iron(III) (Fe3+) ions. I have students prepare several identical equilibrium solutions, then shift the equilibrium by adding more SCN or Fe3+, and by removing Fe3+ with oxalate ions (in the form of Na₂C₂O₄), which forms a colorless complex ion with iron. They synthesize their results and construct an explanation of what happens to a system at equilibrium when it is disturbed, deriving Le Châtelier’s principle based on their personal experience. They support their argument using the evidence from their observations.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RST.11-12.9 Synthesize information from a range of sources (e.g., texts, experiments, simulations) into a coherent understanding of a process, phenomenon, or concept, resolving conflicting information when possible.

NGSS Science & Engineering Practices
3. Planning and carrying out investigations.
4. Analyzing and interpreting data.
6. Constructing explanations.
7. Engaging in argument from evidence.

This experiment can be very structured or exploratory in style depending on the students’ abilities and where the activity falls in the unit. I use less structure for students in more advanced classes and early in a unit. This is one of my favorite experiments because the system is simple and clear, so it is easy for students to relate what they observe to a chemical reaction (i.e., red = [Fe(SCN)]2+).

Purposeful reading

Purposeful reading strategies help students make sense of other people’s thoughts as recorded in a text. As students engage with the text, they better understand science content and simultaneously develop their skill as readers of information-dense, complex writing. “You can’t learn much from a book you can’t read” (6), so scaffolding to support content-rich reading helps students learn more science. Success in Science describes the “inside circle–outside circle” strategy that I used in the lesson plan on limiting reactants, and the K–W–L strategy that can be used to help students think about what they already know (K), want to know (W), and learned (L) about the topic of a reading. Think aloud (7) is another purposeful reading strategy that helps students engage with the text through metacognition.

In a summary protocol activity, students work in groups of four students. They read a passage one paragraph at a time. After silently reading each paragraph, students stop and discuss the main ideas with their group, defending their own summaries using evidence from the text. They write down one or two sentences that summarize the paragraph, and silently read the next paragraph, discuss, etc. One student is designated as a leader to keep the group moving forward and ensure that everyone keeps up. A good ground rule is that each person has to share their initial summary of each paragraph with the group. You may wish to create groups taking into account a balance of strong and weak readers, native English speakers, English language learners, etc. The discussion that happens during summary protocol helps students learn how to capture the main ideas of a passage. By monitoring their conversations and evaluating their summaries, you can also ensure that students understand what they’ve read.

This strategy works well for a complex conceptual topic that students frequently don’t understand when they read about it on their own, such as chemical equilibrium. A passage from the textbook would be appropriate, although you may decide to use another source or write your own passage. With the summary protocol, it is important to select text that is challenging for your students but not beyond their reach.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RST.11-12.2 Determine the central ideas or conclusions of a text; summarize complex concepts, processes, or information presented in a text by paraphrasing them in simpler but still-accurate terms.

NGSS Science & Engineering Practices
8. Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information.

Like most purposeful reading strategies, it takes practice to become comfortable doing this—both for the students and the teacher. Students may assume they understand what they’ve read if they can write down the definitions of the bold vocabulary words in the reading. The first few times I used this strategy, I found that students were not accurately summarizing what they read, so I had to lead a short class discussion after each paragraph to model what their summary should look like. They became more adept at completing the summaries, their comprehension of the text increased dramatically, and they were able to complete independent reading assignments.

Productive dialogue

Productive dialogue strategies help students make sense of their own thoughts and ideas and defend those thoughts to someone else. Students talk to each other about a particular science topic, in a focused manner, for a defined period of time. It’s productive because it allows them to express their understanding and identify and correct misconceptions. Success in Science describes several productive dialogue strategies, including paired verbal fluency, which I use in the lesson plan on limiting reactants; dialogue stems, which help students start a thought; and clock partners (in chemistry I use “beaker buddies”), which encourages students to speak with peers other than their friends.

One strategy I like is called think–pair–share (8). As the name suggests, students first think about something, then talk with a partner about it, and lastly share their thoughts with the class. This strategy is best used when the answer is not immediately apparent and students need to think to themselves for a minute about a concept. I give a prompt, tell them they have a given amount of time (usually 30–60 seconds is appropriate) to formulate their thoughts and perhaps write them down. After time is up, I ask them to turn to a partner, share their thoughts with each other, and discuss each other’s ideas. I monitor the discussion to see when pairs are ready to share their conclusions with the class (usually after about a minute or two). I ask for volunteers or call on pairs to share what they talked about.

For chemical equilibrium, I show a video of nitrogen dioxide equilibrium tubes at different temperatures, tell them the chemical equations and colors of the gases, and ask them three things:

  • Describe what happens to the equilibrium with temperature,
  • Relate that to the [Fe(SCN)]2+ reaction and Le Châtelier’s principle,
  • Decide direction of the reaction that is endo- and exothermic, supporting their answer with evidence from their observations.

2 NO2 ↔ N2O4
Red-brown  Colorless

Figure 3. NO2 and N2O4 equilibrium tubes at 5 °C (left) and 50 °C.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.11-12.1 Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.

NGSS Science & Engineering Practices
2. Developing and using models.
4. Analyzing and interpreting data.
6. Constructing explanations.
7. Engaging in argument from evidence.

Productive dialogue strategies make a great entry point if you’re interested in trying something new because they require little planning and don’t take much class time. When students are compelled to speak what they think, they frequently discover gaps in understanding and are able to formulate questions and get the help they need from classmates or their teacher. When I create a productive dialogue prompt, I craft it carefully so that students access higher-order thought processes. I also adjust the timing based on what I hear from students. Some prompts will require more time for students to think, while others will require more time for students to speak with a partner. As you practice productive dialogue strategies, you will learn to listen for the subtle changes that indicate the conversation has become less productive and you will be able to adjust the timing as necessary.

Meaningful writing

Meaningful writing strategies help students synthesize what they’ve learned, express that new knowledge, and communicate science clearly. One way writing becomes meaningful is when students have the opportunity to take on an expert to novice writing role. Typically, students write in the role of novice to expert (student to teacher). By assuming a different role, students move beyond trying to guess what the teacher wants them to say and express what they actually think. This improves the quality of their writing and gives teachers a better understanding of student ideas (1). Success in Science describes several meaningful writing strategies, including Cornell notes, which help students organize their thoughts, and challenge statements, which engage students in persuasive writing based on evidence. The framed paragraph used in the lesson on limiting reactants is loosely based on the expository paragraph frame described by Olson and Gee (9).

A meaningful writing strategy that I find useful is called a RAFT—role, audience, format, topic (10), also known as the Communication Triangle (1). For this writing assignment, students take on a role as an author who is speaking to a particular audience, in a certain format, and about a particular topic. In a chemical equilibrium example, the student could be a reactant (role) writing to a product in the chemical reaction (audience) describing in a poem (format) what it feels when a shift in equilibrium happens (topic). Or they could act as a chemist (role) writing for an eighth-grade student (audience) a paragraph (format) describing dynamic equilibrium (topic). There is also a resource in the AACT library that uses this strategy about acid/base theories.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.11-12.1 Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.

NGSS Science & Engineering Practices
2. Developing and using models,
4. Analyzing and interpreting data,
6. Constructing explanations, and
7. Engaging in argument from evidence.

My favorite format for RAFTs is a series of Tweets. You will be surprised by what your students can squeeze into 140 characters! Also, usernames and hashtags force students to be creative and subtle about how they express their understanding. When I give my students a RAFT exercise, I let them choose from a short list of roles, audiences, formats, and topics that are related to what they’ve learned. I give them a rubric with guidelines, such as include three facts about chemical equilibrium. One of my students used hashtags in an inventive way to demonstrate her understanding of equilibrium (#shifthappens). Another student who hardly talked the whole year wrote a funny poem full of clever rhymes and twists on words. In both cases, I was able to gauge my students’ depth of understanding, and they were able to express themselves meaningfully.

I have shared some of my favorite strategies, but the strength of the Science Literacy Framework is that these tools can be combined in a variety of ways to suit your purpose and so that they work in your classroom. Success in Science describes many strategies for each dimension of the framework—look them up, try them out, and decide which ones work for you. Most importantly, don’t give up! It will take time and practice for you to master new skills but it will be worth it. As you plan with the Science Literacy Framework in mind, you will address many best practices, CCSS, and NGSS, while also making your class more engaging and student-centered.


  1. Beauchamp, Arthur, Judi Kusnick, and Rick McCallum. Success in Science through Dialogue, Reading and Writing, edited by Jim Hollander, Davis, CA: Regents of the University of California Davis, 2011.

  2. Rowe, Mary B. "Getting Chemistry Off the Killer Course List." Journal of Chemical Education 60, no. 11 (November 1983): 954–956. DOI: 10.1021/ed060p954.

  3. Grant, Maria C., and Douglas Fisher. Reading and Writing in Science: Tools to develop disciplinary literacy. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin: A SAGE Company, 2010.

  4. Keys, Carolyn W. "Revitalizing Instruction in Scientific Genres: Connecting knowledge production with writing to learn in science." Science Education 83 (1999): 115–139. DOI: 10.1002/(SICI)1098-237X(199903)83:2<115::AID-SCE2>3.0.CO;2-Q.

  5. Kovac, Jeffrey, and Donna W. Sherwood. Writing Across the Chemistry Curriculum. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2001.

  6. Allington, Richard L. "You Can't Learn Much from Books You Can't Read." Educational Leadership 60, no. 3 (November 2002): 16–19.

  7. Ortlieb, Evan and Megan Norris. “Using the Think-Aloud Strategy to Bolster Reading Comprehension of Science Concepts.” Current Issues in Education 15, no. 1 (March 13, 2012); http://cie.asu.edu/ojs/index.php/cieatasu/article/view/890.

  8. Lyman, Frank. "The Responsive Classroom: The inclusion of all students." In Mainstreaming Digest, edited by A. Anderson, College Park, MD: University of Maryland Press, 1981.

  9. Olson, Mary W., and Thomas C. Gee. "Content reading instruction in the primary grades: Perceptions and strategies." The Reading Teacher 45, no. 4 (December 1991): 298–307.

  10. Holston, Valli, and Carol Santa. "RAFT: A method of writing across the curriculum that works." Journal of Reading 28, no. 5 (February 1985): 456–457.

Other useful sources

Fisher, Douglas, and Nancy Frey. Checking for Understanding: Formative assessment techniques for your classroom. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2007.

Saphier, Jon, and Robert Gower. The Skillful Teacher: Building your teaching skills. 5th ed. Acton, MA: Research for Better Teaching, Inc., 1997.