Skip to main content

classic lessons 2.0

Oh Deer! Using Socioscientific Issues to Teach Inquiry-Based Lessons With English Language Learners

Science Scope—November/December 2022 (Volume 46, Issue 2)

By Sissy S. Wong, Jie Zhang, Heather Domjan

Oh Deer! Using Socioscientific Issues to Teach Inquiry-Based Lessons With English Language Learners



BIG IDEA/UNIT Population density


TIME REQUIRED Three 50-minute class periods

COST No cost

SAFETY When playing the game, students should be careful not to run into each other.

Socioscientific issues (SSIs) are complex and contentious societal issues with connections to science ideas (Zeidler 2014). SSIs are a promising approach to addressing scientific literacy because they often include discussion and argumentation about contestable social issues (Sadler 2004). When used in classrooms, they can provide context and opportunity for student talk, language-rich inquiry, critical thinking, and perspective taking on a controversial topic (Dolan, Nichols, and Zeidler 2009). SSIs can also be valuable for teaching because they enhance motivation and provide meaningful contexts for science learning. Using SSIs in classrooms can be especially important to English language learners (ELLs) who are learning content and language simultaneously. Using SSIs in the classroom to teach content and language can be an effective way to address science and reading achievement gaps (National Center for Education Statistics 2017).

SSIs can be integrated with inquiry-based instruction, which is a cornerstone for high-quality and effective science instruction. Inquiry-based instruction is important for science learning for all, but it is particularly important for ELLs (Amaral, Garrison, and Klentschy 2002; Hart and Lee 2003). Inquiry provides opportunities for students to generate questions about phenomena, collect data, analyze data, create explanations and predictions based on empirical evidence, and communicate results with peers (National Research Council 2000). Scaffolded inquiry has been shown to simultaneously increase ELL development of science knowledge and language skills (Hampton and Rodriguez 2001). Previous research has suggested a lack of science inquiry activities in the debate over SSIs (Cavagnetto 2010). To address this, we developed the DISCUSS-ELL 5E model that fosters the use of SSIs in inquiry-based instruction to promote language development and science learning.

The DISCUSS-ELL 5E lesson model was produced during an interdisciplinary research project named DISCUSS (Dialogic Inquiry for Socio-scientific and Conceptual Understanding in School Science with English Language Leaners) that was a discourse-rich, language-intensive, and inquiry-based instructional and professional development. The DISCUSS-ELL 5E is based on Bybee and colleagues’ (2006) original 5E, the Disciplinary Language of Science, and the SSI learning model by Sadler, Foulk, and Friedrichsen (2017; see Table 1). Proficiency in the Disciplinary Language of Science involves scientific sensemaking and oral and written language use for science practices, including developing and using models; developing explanations; engaging in argument from evidence; and obtaining, evaluating, and communicating scientific information (Lee, Quinn, and Valdez 2013). Last, it incorporates the SSI learning model by Sadler et al. (2017) in the following manner:

  • Engage: Students encounter a focal issue, connection is made to science ideas, and scientific awareness develops a bridge to societal concerns.
  • Explore, explain, and elaborate: Students engage with socioscientific reasoning and practices through NGSS disciplinary core ideas (DCI), science and engineering practices (SEP), and crosscutting concepts (CCC).
  • Evaluate: Learners synthesize key ideas and practices while applying information to communicate and reflect on a position regarding the problem.

The learning objectives of the DISCUSS-ELL 5E are to develop knowledge in DCIs, engage in SEPs, and apply CCCs, as well as cultivate literacy skills and socioscientific reasoning. To illustrate the implementation of the DISCUSS-ELL 5E model, we share a sixth-grade lesson using an issue relevant to the Houston area. This lesson centers around Hurricane Harvey, a real-life natural disaster that occurred during August 2017. Hurricane Harvey was chosen to set the context for this lesson because it is a relevant and meaningful event to the students of the Houston area. Hurricane Harvey was a Category 4 hurricane that resulted in disastrous flooding in coastal areas of Texas and Louisiana. Over four days, many areas received over 40 inches of rain, while in parts of Houston, it is estimated that some areas received over 50 inches of rain. Hurricane Harvey provides a memorable and relevant SSI for Houston-area students to understand the impact of a natural disaster on the local ecosystem. This DISCUSS-ELL 5E model lesson spans a total of three days with 50-minute lessons.


To begin, we ask students open-ended and guided questions to probe prior knowledge about what they know about Houston wildlife. Some example questions are:

  • What do you notice about Houston?
  • What living and nonliving things have you seen in Houston?
  • What do you know about wildlife in Houston?
  • What do wildlife need to survive?
  • What impacts wildlife in Houston?
  • What recent natural activities have impacted wildlife in Houston?

We ask these questions to build on and include students’ local, physical, geographical, or ecological science understandings. Eventually, we guide students to identify one type of animal that is native to the Houston area—the mule deer (Odocoileus heminous). We then ask, “What do deer need to survive?” After brief discussions, we guide students to form questions about what deer need to survive.


To explore what wildlife need to thrive and what may cause population fluctuations, we use the Oh Deer! activity by Project Wild (see link in Online Resources). This interactive activity models how deer population can fluctuate over time as deer population is influenced by the availability of water, food, and shelter. During this time, the teacher will use multisensory approaches (e.g., gestures, visual cards) to explain the activity. As students undergo at least 10 rounds of Oh Deer!, the teacher keeps a record of the deer population during each round and prompts students to think about other factors that may influence accessibility of water, food, and shelter. It is important to remind students to be careful and not run into each other during this activity, as well as to stay within a designated area. After the rounds of Oh Deer!, students draw a line graph using the data they collected to understand the fluctuations in deer population during the activity.


The teacher begins this portion by encouraging students to make claims about the deer population and explain their claims using data. The teacher should also support the use of students’ previous experiences as the basis for explaining concepts. Students then construct scientific explanations (using the claim evidence reasoning [CER] model) to answer the question “What are some limiting factors that affect the deer population?” As students share their findings, the teacher encourages students to use key terms and checks accuracy of student use of key terms (such as disease, habitat, weather) in speaking. The teacher models and encourages students to use science language to orally describe the line graph and make predictions about the deer population if the limiting factor changes. The teacher should also ask for rebuttal from other students to foster critical thinking about alternate explanations. For example, they can ask if there could have been other reasons why the deer population fluctuated.


The teacher starts this portion of the lesson by showing two videos. The first video is of deer swimming in a flooded plain after Hurricane Harvey to draw interest and curiosity. The second video is of a Kayaker seeing a deer struggle (see links to both videos in Online Resources). Afterward, the teacher presents students with the SSI question: “Should we take away green spaces to build additional drainage systems such as levees and dikes in preparation for future hurricanes and floods?” The teacher then engages students in small-group discussions about the SSI question and prompts students for existing data and evidence. Students can use the data they collected from the activity, or they can look up deer population information on the internet. The teacher also probes students by asking, “What do you already know? Why do you think that?” and prompts students to think about other limiting factors beyond essential components (food, water, shelter, space) such as disease, habitat deconstruction, hunting pressure, and weather conditions.

The teacher then provides students with information about how levees and dikes are built and their role in controlling flood waters, as well as an opportunity to read a news article such as “We have to preserve our wetlands. But we need our floodplains, too” from the Houston Chronicle (Jacobs 2017) or those in other local newspapers that presents both sides of the SSI. Afterward, students work in small groups to discuss their points of view to the SSI question. The teacher sets up the ground norm for open participation; encourages free-flowing, student-led small-group discussions; and scaffolds the discussion only when needed. The scaffolding strategies include prompting for position and reasons (e.g., what do you think? what is your claim? what are your reasons?), modeling and thinking out loud, asking for clarification (e.g., what do you mean by . . . ?), challenging (e.g., some people might disagree with you because . . . and aren’t you making an assumption that might not be true?), reminding (e.g., let’s listen to each other and not talk over one another), encouraging (e.g., that was a good reason/counter-argument), fostering independence (e.g., what do you think about his/her argument?), summing up and refocusing (e.g., so far you have given two reasons: the first reason is . . . and the second reason is . . .), and debriefing (i.e., reflecting on the strengths and weaknesses of the discussion; Clark et al. 2003). The teacher should be an attentive listener and seek teachable moments to foster student social participation and argumentation skills. If student responses tend to be single-sided (e.g., building levees and dikes to reduce the flood impact), the teacher then challenges students to think about counterarguments to building levees and dikes, so that students may recognize that doing so takes away green spaces for wildlife. The teacher should prompt for evidence use and construct arguments based on multiple sources including data, reading, and personal experiences. Students discuss the prompt for alternative explanations from multicultural and multi-situational contexts (e.g., what are some other impacts of Harvey on wildlife?). During this time, the teacher should also foster students’ ability to connect content with real-world situations by asking them to come up with examples in which Hurricane Harvey or other natural disasters have impacted wildlife.


After the small-group discussions, the teacher has students write an individual response to the question, “Should we take away green spaces to build additional drainage systems such as levees and dikes in preparation for future hurricanes and floods?” Encourage students to weigh the strengths and weaknesses of different arguments in the small-group discussions. To facilitate student construction of CER, teachers can provide an argument outline or diagram illustrating main arguments on both sides (see Figure 1). Provide a writing rubric such as the one found on NSTA’s website (see link in Online Resources) and ask students to share and critique peer’s writing using the rubric. Provide feedback on the completion and appropriateness of students’ construction of written arguments using the same rubric for consistency. Assess students’ connection of their understanding the science content to real-world situations by providing other real-world circumstances, and see if students can connect their learning to another situation.


Figure 1
Argument outline: Harvey Hurricane, Oh Deer! lesson.

Argument outline: Harvey Hurricane, Oh Deer! lesson.


The DISCUSS-ELL 5E model aligns the 5E cycle, literacy strategies, and SSI strategies. The key elements in Table 1 are not exclusive and are intended to serve as a guide for teachers to create relevant, accessible, and language-intensive SSI lessons. The DISCUSS-ELL model can be adapted to any age-appropriate SSI in K–12 science classrooms, and we encourage teachers to consider what local and current issues are occurring in their students’ lives to use when developing an SSI inquiry lesson. Using SSIs, especially those that are relevant to students’ lives, can help students develop their scientific literacy, critical thinking skills, and language proficiency. SSIs provide meaningful contexts for science learning and can be important opportunities for ELLs to learn content and language simultaneously. This model encourages students to become literate in locally relevant issues and to develop abilities to formulate and articulate evidence-based claims. By integrating SSIs with inquiry-based instruction, all students, including ELLs, are given opportunities to develop science knowledge and language skills critical for scientific literacy.

Online Resources

Deer swimming in a flooded plain video—

Kayaker and struggling deer video—

Oh Deer activity by Project Wild—

Writing rubric—

Other Resources


  • 5E instruction in Bybee et al. (2006)
  • Claim-evidence-reasoning-rebuttal (CERR) framework by McNeil and Krajcik (2011)


  • Grant, M.C., D. Fisher, and D. Lapp. 2015. Reading and writing in science: Tools to develop disciplinary literacy (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
  • Trost-Shahata, E., C.H. Brock, T. Raphael, V.J. Goatley, and C.M. Weber. 2014. Engaging students in disciplinary literacy, K–6: Reading, writing, and teaching tools for the classroom. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
  • Zhang, J., and K.A.D. Stahl. 2011. Collaborative reasoning: Language-rich discussions for English language learners. The Reading Teacher 65 (4): 257–260.
Socioscientific Issues
  • SSI teaching and learning model by Sadler, Foulk, and Friedrichsen (2017)

Sissy S. Wong ( is an associate professor of science education, Jie Zhang is an associate professor of bilingual/ESL education, and Heather Domjan is a clinical associate professor of science education, all in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Houston in Houston, Texas.


Amaral, O.M., L. Garrison, and M. Klentschy. 2002. Helping English learners increase achievement through inquiry-based science instruction. Bilingual Research Journal 26 (2): 213–239.

Bybee, R.W., J.A. Taylor, A. Gardner, P. Vanscotter, J.C. Powell, A. Westbrook, and N. Landes. 2006. The BSCS 5E instructional model: Origins, effectiveness and applications. Colorado Springs, CO: BSCS.

Cavagnetto, A.R. 2010. Argument to foster scientific literacy. Review of Educational Research 80 (3): 36–371.

Clark, A., R.C. Anderson, L. Kuo, I.H. Kim, A. Archodidou, and K. Nguyen-Jahiel. 2003. Collaborative reasoning: Expanding ways for children to talk and think in school. Educational Psychology Review 15 (2): 181–198.

Dolan, T.J., B.H. Nichols, and D.L. Zeidler. 2009. Using socioscientific issues in primary classrooms. Journal of Elementary Science Education 21 (3): 1–12.

Hampton, E., and R. Rodriguez. 2001. Inquiry science in bilingual classrooms. Bilingual Research Journal 24 (4): 461–478.

Hart, J., and O. Lee. 2003. Teacher professional development to improve science and literacy achievement of English language learners. Bilingual Research Journal 27 (3): 475–501.

Jacob, J.S. 2017, October 9. We have to preserve our wetlands. But we need our floodplains, too. Houston Chronicle.

Lee, O., H. Quinn, and G. Valdez. 2013. Science and language for English language learners in relation to next generation science standards and with implications for common core standards for English language arts and mathematics. Educational Researcher 42 (4): 223–233.

McNeill, K.L., and J.S. Krajcik. 2011. Supporting grade 5–8 students in constructing explanations in science: The claim, evidence, and reasoning framework for talk and writing. Boston, MA: Pearson Education.

National Center for Education Statistics. 2017. The condition of education 2017. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.

National Research Council. 2000. Inquiry and the National Science Education Standards. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Sadler, T.D. 2004. Informal reasoning regarding socioscientific issues: A critical review of research. Journal of Research in Science Teaching 41 (5): 513–536.

Sadler, T.D., J.A. Foulk, and P.J. Friedrichsen. 2017. Evolution of a model for socio-scientific issue teaching and learning. International Journal of Education in Mathematics, Science, and Technology 5 (2): 75–87.

Zeidler, D.L. 2014. Socioscientific issues as a curriculum emphasis: Theory, research and practice. In Handbook of research on science education (Vol. 2), eds. N.G. Lederman and S.K. Abell, 697–726. New York, NY: Routledge.

Crosscutting Concepts Disciplinary Core Ideas Inquiry Multilingual Learners Three-Dimensional Learning Middle School

Asset 2