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Science Plus ELA: A Natural Fit

A science and literacy integration method maximizes time for both.

Science and Children—July/August 2020 (Volume 57, Issue 9)

By Lauren M. Shea and Therese Shanahan

Science Plus ELA: A Natural Fit

There’s just not enough time for science. We have heard this statement over and over again from our colleagues. Whether it’s 20 minutes at the end of the day or competing weekly with social studies, we know that science often takes a back burner to English Language Arts (ELA) and Math. With ELA and Math being tested from early years and our funding relying on each, many teachers are pushed by administrators to spend as much time as possible on those two subjects. During our years as classroom teachers and professional development providers, we have attempted to find creative ways to make sure that students experience the joy, wonder, and excitement of science through other content areas—for our sense of responsibility to our students and per our administrators’ requests.

We know that language is best learned through context. Learners have to talk about something, listen about something, read about something, and write about something. Our thinking and practice centers around making that something be science. In the Natural Order of Content Development (Wesson 2002), discussion of one’s new understanding is the foundation for all later comprehension. When students engage in literacy practices during science investigations, they make sense of their own thinking, listen to the ideas of others, become aware of multiple perspectives, re-think their own ideas, are able to evaluate another’s ideas, and frame their own ideas before writing (Worth 2008). According to Stoddart, Pinal, Latzke, and Canaday (2002), there is a natural synergy between science and language that provides opportunities for student understanding of science content and language beyond what could be learned separately. In other words, the integration of the two is greater than the sum of its parts. Most recently, the National Academies of Sciences (2018) highlighted the need for teachers of English Learners to “explicitly focus on language in the teaching of STEM concepts and practices [to] encourage ELs to draw on their full range of linguistic and communicative competencies” (p. 129). With these ideas in mind, we—a literacy teacher and science educator—have thought deeply about ways to best integrate language, literacy, and science so that we can provide meaningful experiences to students and so that teachers can address and meet the standards of both content areas.

Start With the Science

How do we do this? In thinking about beginning a process of integrating science with English Language Arts (ELA), we always start with the science—the something we want our students to use for their language and literacy development. We know that we want learners engaged in inquiry science, so we need to find the exact moments in a hands-on lesson during which students meaningfully practice the four literacy components of speaking, listening, reading, and writing. How can we make each ELA connection more explicit by adding student-talk strategies, reading strategies, or writing strategies?

We started with the science. For the purposes of our professional development and for this article, we chose to share our process of cross-curricular design via a lesson about forces. We have implemented this lesson with our K-2 and 3-5 students and teacher-learners. We find the content relatable and comprehensible to teachers across grade levels. This lesson serves as an example of the process we follow for all our science and ELA lessons.

First, we began by looking at the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) to find a performance expectation that serves to model a typical lesson for elementary students. For this lesson, we decided on the following: 3-PS2-1. Plan and conduct an investigation to provide evidence of the effects of balanced and unbalanced forces on the motion of an object.

Once we found the performance expectation, we noted the science and engineering practices (Planning and Carrying Out an Investigation), the disciplinary core ideas (Forces and Motion), and the crosscutting concepts (Cause and Effect). Then, we began to build our 5E lesson plan, which is shared online (see NSTA Connection). Throughout the planning stages, we always have initial goals of including science activities that foster student talk and discussion, keeping in mind the SEP of Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information.

Plan a 5E Lesson


First, how would we Engage our learners in the science content? We remembered the probe from Page Keeley’s book Uncovering Students’ Ideas in Science entitled Apple on a Desk.” The probe asks about forces acting on an apple that sits on a desk. In the scenario, five children have five different ideas about the forces. Students must decide which child’s idea is the one with which they agree. We thought using the Keeley probe would serve as a great Anticipatory Set (Beauchamp, Kusnick, and McCallum 2011), which activates students’ prior knowledge, gives opportunities for initial discussion, and hooks them into the thinking to come. In an anticipatory set, students respond to a set of statements on a specific topic by deciding if they agree or disagree with each statement. Using an anticipatory set gives us, as teachers, a view into what students think before starting a topic. It provides an opportunity for speaking, listening, reading, and writing. It also helps to pique students’ curiosity about a topic as well as help them connect to previous experiences.

Activities such as these are especially beneficial for EL students to capitalize on their prior knowledge and support their science and language learning (Tolbert and Knox 2016). We typically hear students discuss ideas such as, “I agree with Sam. Gravity is the force keeping me in my chair, so I think that there is one force, gravity, acting on the apple.”


For the Explore, we decided to have students manipulate materials at five stations. They investigate, make observations, and record data on a documentation sheet (see NSTA Connection) to determine how the materials interact. The students work in small groups of four and rotate every five minutes to the various stations. At one station, they put bricks on sponges and observe the interactions between the two materials. At the second station, learners observe a penny on an index card sitting on a plastic cup. They have to plan how they can get the penny into the cup without lifting the card. At the third station, the learners observe a penny sitting on a roll of tape that is resting on a wide mouth plastic bottle. They have to plan how to get the penny into the bottle. At the fourth station, the learners lift a brick and observe how their muscles can make the brick go up or go down. Finally, at the fifth station, the learners put bricks on two meter sticks that are extended between two stationary chairs. They observe the interactions between the bricks and the meter sticks. As they proceed through each station, the learners naturally discuss, document, and revise their findings at each station. As teachers, we ask questions, probe for deeper thinking and observation, and formatively assess student understanding as we walk around the room between stations.

As we visit each station, we typically ask questions to highlight students’ observation of the forces and connect to prior experience such as: What do you notice? Why did the penny fall into the cup? Show me with your hands the forces you think you observe here. What did you have to do to make the brick in your hands move upward? Where do you see something pushing against something else? Is that the only pushing that is happening here?

Within these small-group conversations, students practice their language and record their thinking to prepare for the forthcoming whole-class discussion in the Explain phase. Student share ideas such as “the brick pushes down with greater force so the sponge gets flatter” and “When I flick the card away, the penny falls down into the cup.”


In the Explain, we come back together to have students share their observations and construct potential explanations about the effects of their observed balanced and unbalanced forces. We ask our students to provide evidence to support their explanations, including their ideas of what caused forces to remain balanced or unbalanced. Teachers find that students more readily share their ideas in this whole-class discussion because, in the Explore, they had already put ideas into words and authentically practiced their academic language while the teacher asked probing questions.

Common Core English Language Arts College and Career Readiness (CCR) Anchor Standards.

Common Core English Language Arts College and Career Readiness (CCR) Anchor Standards.

putting the activity together


Formative assessment is ongoing in our lesson as we observe students talking to one another, investigating with the materials, and documenting the findings. However, in the Evaluate phase, our students revisit their probes from the Engage phase and decide if they want to change their initial decisions about the Apple on the Desk based on their newly discovered knowledge of balanced and unbalanced forces. We use this time as an assessment to collectively discuss the learning and determine if students’ collected data and interactive discussions allowed them to reach the learning objectives. We then guide the students to create grammar-based sentences about their experiences in the investigation using “the Farmer in the Dell” music. Together, we then sing their sentences, being sure to include an Article, Adjective, Adjective, Noun, Verb, Adverb, and Prepositional Phrase. The example we use in our lesson plan is “The shiny red apple pushes down on the table.” The teacher paraphrases students’ words to ensure that the sentences reflect the observations from the investigations. Then the students sing the words, “The shiny, red apple, The shiny red apple, The shiny red apple pushes down on the table.”


In the Extend phase, we first demonstrate finding upward and downward forces at school (i.e., holding a ball at recess, noting the ball pushing down on a hand and the hand pushing up on the ball, or playing hand games and pushing with varying forces). Then, in home-to-school connection, we ask our students to return to their homes to notice forces acting on objects around them. Their task is to identify whether the forces are balanced or unbalanced, then provide evidence for their statement. They share their thinking and findings with someone at home.

Once we were confident that the lesson had an inquiry focus, aligned with NGSS, and included opportunities for student discussion, we dove back into the lesson plan to find the specific places where literacy integration was happening… and possibly include more!

Identify The English Language Arts Opportunities

In our content area of science, “the conceptual is the linguistic where language is the primary medium through which scientific concepts are understood, constructed, and expressed” (Bialystok 2008, p. 109). That said, most of our science lessons already include many literacy activities. The way we write our 5E lesson plans has us define what students do at each part of the plan (see NSTA Connection), so our next step was to identify any activity where students engage in literacy activities, i.e., speak, listen, read, or write.

After we found each speaking, listening, reading, or writing moment that was already embedded in the lesson, we created a chart to specifically highlight those activities. We compared each activity to the Common Core English Language Arts Standards [for the purposes of our multi-grade level PD and this reader audience, we use the one page, easy-to-read CC-ELA College and Career Readiness (CCR) Anchor Standards as an overarching amalgamation of the grade level CC-ELA Standards] and matched the activity to the reading, writing, or speaking/listening standard it addresses. Table 1 shows the alignment.

Table 1. Children Doing Literacy Activities.


What Children Are Doing

English Language Arts Opportunities ELA CCR


Read the probe titled “Apple on the Desk”


Summarize each hypothesis put forth by the hypothetical students in the probe


Respond to probe in writing

R8, W1

Report to a partner



Read and review the instructions at each station


Investigate the objects at the stations

Discuss observations about forces and motion

SL1, SL2, SL3

Write observations on graphic organizer documentation sheet

W2, W4

Report to a partner



Discuss observations from stations with small group

SL4, SL6

Create explanations with partners

SL1, SL2

Share explanations with whole class with evidence to support statement (cause and effect)

SL4, SL6


Write/ revise response to Apple on the desk probe


Share information with whole class using grammar-based sentences

SL1, SL4, SL6

Numbered Heads



Observe balanced and unbalanced forces at home

Write observations about forces and motion


Talk to someone at home


From our chart, we realized that our science lesson already included many chances for students to engage in meaningful and content-related literacy practices. We noticed that students were actively speaking and listening throughout the lesson, plus they had several opportunities to read and write. Each literacy opportunity served to give students the chance to deepen their learning and allow them to demonstrate their comprehension. Furthermore, the literacy opportunities enabled students to practice, improve, and demonstrate literacy skills.

There, But Now Explicitly Stated

We knew from our own teaching and from our research that we needed to make each speaking, listening, reading, and writing opportunity more explicit in order for the moments to be noticed by the implementing teacher, purposeful to the students, and thoroughly connected to our ELA outcomes. We wanted to be sure that any teacher who was teaching this lesson was aware of student discussion and documentation, and then used it to formatively assess student content learning and literacy development. So, our next step was to go back to the wording of the lesson plan to highlight the importance of the literacy activities within the content. We also included the specific name of the NGSS and CCR Standard at the exact moments in the lesson plan where the alignment occurs to further stress its cross-curricular integration. Because we had the CCR document to start from, we knew exactly where to look in the CC-ELA standards to find the appropriate grade-level literacy standards. For example, CCR Speaking and Listening #1 is well-aligned to CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.3.1, and was then included in the lesson, too!

But, There Is So Much More!

Language learning happens best in context. When we looked back, we realized we had so many language goals already included in our lesson without really knowing it! But, we also knew that inquiry science provides a wealth of opportunity for even more. We were already using the language to teach the science, so why not use the science to teach the language?

In investigations, we can always embed more specific talk-strategies (See Shea and Shanahan 2011) to allow students the opportunity to practice speaking and listening while increasing their comprehension through discussion. We found appropriate places for student-talk strategies, such as Report to a Partner and Numbered Heads.

We then pinpointed moments where students could purposefully document their ideas, observations, and interpretations through reading and writing (graphic organizers, revising, reading others’ writing). With the added moments to stop and think, practice language, and listen to natural speech, we knew this lesson was stronger for diverse learners. We added the new literacy strategies to our chart to align them to the CC-ELA standards. The lesson was now full of literacy development strategies and science learning. We then set out to teach this lesson to elementary students, preservice teachers, and through professional development with practicing teachers.

What Participants Told Us

For the past several years, we worked with other teachers by enacting this lesson and practicing this method of lesson planning so that others can try it out for themselves. Our PD participants, colleagues, students, and student-teachers have tried this method to integrate literacy and science and have found it easy to do. Our research looking at student test scores confirmed that students whose teachers participated in our PD that modeled science and literacy integration had students who outperformed their counterparts on ELA State Exams (Shea, Sandholtz, and Shanahan 2017). The results showed that the model was effective for English Learners as they also outperformed their peers on these tests. Additionally, teachers found their students to have more active discussions about the science and felt like better science teachers (Shanahan and Shea 2012).

But, our favorite example comes from a teacher who went to her principal with the books she was supposed to use in her ELA program. She told the principal that she would rather use some of her predetermined ELA time to teach science instead. Her principal replied supportively and said that they “do not teach a curriculum, they teach standards.” So he told her if she could find a way to teach the ELA standards using science, she should go ahead and do that. Then, she did! She stated that her students mastered both science and ELA that year. That principal supported the teacher in her vision for quality cross-curricular instruction and science as the context for literacy skills. Maybe you could have this vision too?

NSTA Connection

Download the lesson plan at

Lauren M. Shea ( is a professorial lecturer at American University in Washington, DC. Therese Shanahan ( is a lecturer/supervisor at the School of Education, University of California, Irvine. 

Connecting to the Next Generation Science Standards


3-PS2 Motion and Stability: Forces and Interactions

The chart below makes one set of connections between the instruction outlined in this article and the NGSS. Other valid connections are likely; however, space restrictions prevent us from listing all possibilities.

The materials, lessons, and activities outlined in the article are just one step toward reaching the performance expectation listed below. 

Performance Expectation

3-PS2-1. Plan and conduct an investigation to provide evidence of the effects of balanced and unbalanced forces on the motion of an object.

Science and Engineering Practice    

Planning and Carrying Out Investigations    

Students carry out multiple investigations by observing, manipulating, and recording how forces can be balanced or unbalanced and plan, create, and test their own investigations, as needed, using the materials at each center.

Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information    

Students communicate clearly, through oral language strategies, to discuss initial ideas about forces (through the anticipatory set), observe forces in action (in the centers), and persuasively use the ideas they generated in the centers to explain balanced and unbalanced forces.

Disciplinary Core Idea    

PS2A: Forces and Motion

Each force acts on one particular object and has both a strength and a direction. An object at rest typically has multiple forces acting on it, but they add to give zero net force on the object. Forces that do not sum to zero can cause changes in the object’s speed or direction of motion.

Students manipulate objects at rest to cause them to either fall or rise.

Crosscutting Concept    

Cause and Effect     

Students investigate and observe materials to determine what happens to them as they are manipulated.


Beauchamp A., Kusnick J., and McCallum R.. 2011. Success in science through dialogue, reading, and writing. Davis, CA: The Regents of the University of California, Davis.

Bialystok E. 2008. Second language learners in the science classroom. In Teaching science to English language learners, eds. Rosebery A. and Warren B., p. 107–117. Arlington, VA: NSTA Press.

Keeley P., Eberle F., and Dorsey C.. 2008. Uncovering student ideas in science (Vol 3). Arlington, VA: NSTA Press.

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. English Learners in STEM Subjects: Transforming Classrooms, Schools, and Lives. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Shea L.M., Sandholtz J.H., and Shanahan T.. 2017. We are all talking: A whole-school approach to professional development for teachers of English learners. Professional Development in Education 44 (2): 190–208.

Shea L.M., and Shanahan T.. 2011. Student talk: Oral language development through science. Science and Children 49 (3): pp. 62–66.

Shanahan T., and Shea L.M.. 2012. Incorporating English language teaching through science for K–2 teachers. Journal of Science Teacher Education 23 (4): 407–428.

Stoddart T., Pinal A., Latzke M., and Canaday D.. 2002. Integrating inquiry science and language development for English language learners. Journal of Research in Science Teaching 39 (8): 664–687.

Tolbert S., and Knox C.. 2016. “They might know a lot of things that I don’t know:” Investigating differences in preservice teachers’ ideas about contextualizing science instruction in multilingual classrooms. International Journal of Science Education 38 (7):1133–1149.

Wesson K. 2002. Memory and the brain. Independent School 61 (3): 78–92.

Worth K. 2008. Science talk and science writing: A view from the classroom. A presentation given at the Literacy Institute 2008, National Geographic School Publishing and Literacy Achievement Research Center.

5E Multilingual Learners Interdisciplinary Elementary

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