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Teaching Teachers

NGSS Lesson Adaptations

A resource for integrating the science practices into your instruction

NGSS Lesson Adaptations

By Kevin Cherbow, Katherine McNeill, Rebecca Lowenhaupt, Megan McKinley, and Benjamin Lowell

Ms. Ryan’s second-grade class is in the middle of a unit on ecosystem interactions. In this particular lesson, students are grouped heterogeneously and tasked with developing models to reflect the role of animals in plant reproduction. To support their models, Ms. Ryan asks students to research and watch video clips related to the roles of various animals in the processes of seed dispersal and plant pollination. In their models, Ms. Ryan wants her students to focus on the relevant structural traits of the animal that benefit seed dispersal or plant pollination. To support this goal, she provides her students with a graphic organizer (Figure 1) to highlight this model component and to support the students’ planning of their overall models. Ms. Ryan encourages her students to write in the graphic organizer as they gather information from the class website relating to plant reproduction. Three students, Gisella, Maeve, and Joseph, choose to model the process of how hummingbirds pollinate flowers. They begin to gather information about hummingbird traits and pollination from the class website. Ms. Ryan listens in as the students discuss:

Graphic organizer example.

Maeve: The website says the hummingbird has a long beak and a long tongue. I think these are important traits!

Gisella: We need to write why these traits help them pollinate. How do they help?

Maeve: I think the long beak can help them reach into the plant and the tongue helps get the nectar.

Joseph: So what about the flowers? The organizer says we need to draw the flower too.

Gisella: The website says the hummingbirds pollinate flowers that look like tubes.

Maeve: I get it! Because the hummingbird can dig its long beak deep into the tube.

Joseph: Okay, let’s draw this out.

After all the students finish their models, Ms. Ryan has each group display its model to their classmates (Figure 2). To facilitate this process, students do a “gallery walk” to view each other’s models. During this time, Ms. Ryan also gives each student several sticky notes with sentence starters in order to write feedback to their classmates. The sentence starters scaffold student feedback so it will be positive and constructive. Students then use the sticky notes to post suggestions and comments to their classmates’ models as they complete the gallery walk. Looking forward, this activity has the potential to serve as an excellent jumping-off point for students to complete revisions to their models.

Example model with feedback.

In this example, Ms. Ryan’s second-grade class displayed a sophisticated level of engagement in the science practice of Developing and Using Models. Her students were able to create their own models, which explained the influence of various animal traits on plant reproduction. They were also able to evaluate the merits and limitations of each other’s models. Furthermore, Ms. Ryan employed several instructional strategies, such as graphic organizers and sentence starters, which supported student engagement in the modeling practice. However, when Ms. Ryan first started planning this lesson, she had some confusion about what counted as a model and needed support to integrate this practice into her instruction.

Overall, the teaching and learning in this example highlight the underlying goal of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS Lead States 2013) to engage students in authentic science practice–based learning experiences. Unfortunately, this goal can represent a significant challenge for elementary classrooms. Specifically, such learning experiences are often difficult because they require a shift away from teaching science as a body of memorized facts to teaching science as a way of thinking, talking, and acting used to make sense of the natural world (Osborne 2014). This shift is difficult because there are few resources illustrating what it looks like for students to engage in NGSS science practices (Pruitt 2014). In this article, we describe a set of science practice–based resources called NGSS Lesson Adaptations that can help teachers as they develop or modify lessons to include all three dimensions. These resources provide examples of students engaged in all eight NGSS science practices. The resources also support teacher discussion around incorporating the science practices in the classroom.

Lesson Adaptations and The Continuum Tool

The Science Practices Lesson Adaptation resources are composed of text-based vignettes of classroom instruction for each of the eight NGSS science practices (see Internet Resource). These adaptations provide examples of classroom instruction using the science practices. Each adaptation offers four variations of a lesson for a specific science practice and NGSS performance expectation. After reading through the four lesson variations, educators can order them from least to most sophisticated in terms of student engagement in the science practices (Table 1). To order these adaptations, teachers use another of our NGSS resources, the Science Practices Continuum (see McNeill, Katsh-Singer, and Pelletier 2015 for a description). This Continuum is a tool that can be used to guide and evaluate science practice-based instruction. The tool assesses student engagement in each science practice from level 1 to level 4. The levels reflect increasingly sophisticated engagement in the practices (i.e., 1=least to 4=most). Additionally, for each science practice in the Continuum, we focused on one or two elements that are challenging for students and that can serve as productive levers for shifting classroom culture. As a result, you can use the Continuum to assess student engagement in the science practices concerning these elements. Furthermore, it provides a formative assessment of instruction that can support teachers as they adapt their instruction to better meet the needs of all students.

The four variations of the lesson can be ordered along the four levels of the Continuum for a science practice. Further, the act of ordering the four lesson adaptations serves to highlight the productive levers or key distinguishing factors between the continuum levels (1–4) for a particular science practice. Together, the Continuum tool and the NGSS Lesson Adaptation resources provide a concrete way to envision how the same lesson may be adapted to promote higher levels of the science practices. These instructional supports can also aid in the creation of science practice–based rubrics. Specifically, teachers can use the Continuum to develop rubrics that assess how well student work is aligned to the goals of the NGSS science practices. The lesson adaptations lend further support to the development of rubrics by providing examples of the increasingly sophisticated ways in which students can engage in the practices.

Lesson Adaptation

We have used the Science Practices Lesson Adaptation resources with teachers (individual or group) to help them develop or modify their own lessons (Figure 3). The resources highlight key areas that can be modified in lessons to support the science practices. Each lesson adaptation is based on a different NGSS science practice and performance expectation. We intentionally chose a range of grade levels and science domains to allow teachers to find an example relevant to them. All lesson adaptations are publicly available and free for download to all educators.

Lesson adaptation web interface.
Table 1

Developing and using models lesson adaptation.

Level 1

Level 2

Level 3

Level 4

Developing and using models

Students do not create or use models.

Students create or use models. The models focus on describing natural phenomena rather than predicting or explaining the natural world. Students do not evaluate the merits and limitations of the model.

Students create or use models focused on predicting or explaining the natural world. Students do not evaluate the merits and limitations of the models.

Students create or use models focused on predicting or explaining the natural world. Students evaluate the merits and limitations of the model.

After choosing a Lesson Adaptation, you can read through the four lesson adaptations (A, B, C, D) and use the Continuum to rank the lesson adaptations from level 1 to 4. If you decide to work with other educators, there are many possible groupings that can support a range of elementary school science settings. For example, you can group teachers by grade, discipline, or the science practice of interest. While in a group, you can discuss your rationales for your rankings and brainstorm potential strategies to adapt lessons to better promote the science practices. We have found that discussing these with teachers can help clarify what counts as the different science practices and highlight productive levers that distinguish one adaptation from another. Furthermore, they can help teachers reflect on how their own lessons could be adapted to promote higher levels of the science practice. As a result of this process, teachers developed new ideas and strategies to support the instruction of the science practices in their own classrooms.

Lesson Adaptation Example: Developing and Using Models

We return now to Ms. Ryan’s second-grade classroom and her instruction of the Developing and Using Models science practice. Specifically, we trace how Ms. Ryan was able to use the Developing and Using Models Lesson Adaptation to inform her instruction of this practice. Ms. Ryan and the other members of the second-grade instructional team decided to use the Lesson Adaptations as an activity to support teacher learning around the NGSS. After discussing which adaptation to choose, the instructional team decided on Developing and Using Models. They chose this adaptation because there was some confusion around what does and does not count as a student model in their initial discussion.

After reading and ranking each adaptation (Figure 4), the teachers began to discuss their choices and their associated rationales. In the following conversation, the instructional team discussed their initial confusion about models while trying to differentiate between the level 1 and level 2 adaptations:

Developing and using models lesson adaptation.

Ms. Romero: I’m still confused about what is and is not model. Are the diagrams of the flower and the animal in adaptation A models?

Mr. Jenkins: I am not sure, but level 2 of the continuum says that models focus on describing natural phenomena rather than predicting or explaining them. Do we think this model describes or explains?

Ms. Ryan: I don’t think it does either. I think it is level 1 because it seems like the students are just drawing and labeling the teacher-made diagram. I don’t see the students themselves actually creating a model here.

Ms. Romero: Yeah, you’re right. It also doesn’t seem like the act of placing a flower diagram by a butterfly diagram actually explains anything about pollination.

In this exchange, the group was able to come to a consensus relating to what they thought should count as a model. Specifically, they focused on the importance of predicting or explaining for a model. As such, this discussion served as a valuable learning experience to clarify what it looks like when students engage in the modeling practice. Following this conversation, the group then began to discuss their choices and rationale for levels 3 and 4:

Ms. Ryan: I think Lesson Adaptation B is level 3 for Developing and Using Models.

Mr. Jenkins: Why do you say that?

Ms. Ryan: Well, from looking at the Continuum, I see that in level 3, the students create or use models focused on predicting or explaining the natural world, but they don’t evaluate the merits and limitations of the model. It looks like the students are making models that explain how animals pollinate flowers, but I don’t see any evidence of them evaluating these models.

Ms. Romero: I agree, and I think that means lesson adaptation C is level 4. They seem to be evaluating their models there.

Mr. Jenkins: Yeah, the teacher set up that gallery walk where the students could place stickies with their ideas on the models. I really liked that!

Ms. Ryan: Me too! I am thinking about using that strategy in my classroom. We are starting our life science unit soon!

In this exchange, the teacher group was able to productively discuss their Lesson Adaptation rankings with classroom evidence from the Adaptations and with reasoning derived from the Continuum. Furthermore, Ms. Ryan and Ms. Romero were able to highlight the key instructional lever (i.e., evaluation of models) that distinguished a level 3 from a level 4 for this practice. Last, Ms. Ryan acquired a new instructional strategy from the level 4 adaptation that she decided to use to engage her own students in the development and use of models.


Integrating the next generation science practices into instruction can be difficult. As such, we need resources that illustrate what effective and non-effective integration of the practices looks like (Pruitt 2014). Furthermore, teachers need supports that can guide reflection around how their own lessons may be adapted to integrate the science practices (Bybee 2014). To meet this need, we aimed to provide examples of students engaged in the science practices and to support teacher discussion around how to incorporate the science practices into their classrooms. We hope our resources not only serve these twin purposes but also aid teachers to make the science practices an integral part of their students’ science learning experiences.


Bybee R.W. 2014. NGSS and the next generation of science teachers. Journal of Science Teacher Education 25 (2): 211–221.

McNeill K.L., Katsh-Singer R., and Pelletier P.. 2015. Assessing science practices: Moving your class along a continuum. Science Scope 39 (4): 21–28.

NGSS Lead States. 2013. Next Generation Science Standards: For states, by states. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Osborne J. 2014. Teaching scientific practices: Meeting the challenge of change. Journal of Science Teacher Education 25 (2): 177–196.

Pruitt S.L. 2014. The Next Generation Science Standards: The features and challenges. Journal of Science Teacher Education 25 (2): 145–156.

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