Building Background Knowledge for Your Science Students

What do you do with students who come into your science classroom without any background knowledge? This can be a real problem and concern in the upper elementary and middle school classrooms as science often falls to the wayside in the primary and early elementary years where reading and math are more prevalent.

Having a master's degree in literacy, I realized that background information is necessary to bring students beyond the introductory level. In the science classroom, this is a concern because often we are building upon student’s background knowledge to delve deeper into a topic. So as an upper elementary or middle school science teacher what can we do for students that come in with little to no understanding of a topic?

Here are 5 strategies to QUICKLY provide students with background information on a topic:

Preassess before starting a unit

Give students a preassessment before starting a unit. Based on the preassessment results, you can provide students with video links, articles, or a fact sheet on your teacher page, during extra help time, or as an extra credit assignment.

Frame the readings in a different format.

         Instead of taking a class period to read through worksheets, I joined the digital age and created Edpuzzle videos using Screencast-o-matic. The videos feature me reading about the concept to the student. I also include explanations. These videos have been a game-changer in my classroom for my struggling readers. They take the pressure off of these students allowing them to focus on the content. Edpuzzle allows you to assess student comprehension through different forms of questioning throughout the video. This allows me to have a flipped classroom as this can be assigned for homework allowing students to come to class the following day with some background knowledge. Edpuzzle lets me skip the “boring” stuff and increases my ability to be hands-on in the classroom. I also use this as a grade in my grade book. Check out my States of Matter Edpuzzle here.

         If you do not have access to technology, you can provide students with a printable to read after a test or for homework the night before. This strategy can also be used for students who do not have access to working technology at home.

Start making students responsible for their learning.

Make students responsible and reflective by thinking about what they need to know to succeed in the classroom.

         As you are teaching or students are working collaboratively, keep post its around your room and encourage students to grab one and write down their areas of confusion on it. If you are using the first strategy, you can quickly point students in the direction of where they should go to clear up their confusion.

Use misconceptions to help understand a topic.

         Every unit in science has misconceptions that throughout the years, people have confused and think it true. Take those common misconceptions and use them as teaching points. Put students into collaborative groups and give each one a common misconception. As they work together, see if they can figure out why it is not true. This allows students to learn from one another, which many theorize strengthens their learning and leaves a lasting impression with them to better retain the information. These misconceptions can be revisited throughout the unit and can also be used for assessments.

Meet with your department to identify topics students need to know to be prepared.

Teamwork with coworkers can help problem solve areas of concern for grade 4 5 6 science students

         This is probably the most challenging strategy because it requires other people to join you. The most ideal situation would be to have a working science model from K-12. Having schools buy into why science is so important for our youngsters is important. If schools are taking the time to allow students to observe and investigate in Kindergarten, as they get to your grade level, it should become easier and easier to build on their knowledge. A spiraled curriculum could benefit the entire school district.

I hope these strategies prove to be useful in your classroom. If they are, I would love to hear from you in the comments. 

students lack background knowledge in science to help them understand key concepts to learn

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    What is CER? Everything I Want to Know about CER and How to Implement it in My Classroom

    Claim, evidence, reasoning, also known as CER, is a strategy that many science teachers are now using to have their students write clear, concise lab reports that are filled with scientific evidence and reasoning. This strategy aligns with NGSS and Common Core State Standards so it is classroom win.

    Getting started with CER in Your grade 4, 5, 6 science classroom       It can be difficult to get started and wrap your head around how to implement this writing method into your science classroom. To do so and access graphic organizers, check out this blog post which will walk you through the steps of CER and examples of student responses for claim, evidence, and reasoning. Practice makes perfect. Sign up for my email list below to get a few ideas to quickly use in your classroom and access more ideas here.

    claim evidence reasoning to engage students in holiday learning       This science strategy can also be used to help incorporate the holidays into your classroom with fun and engaging activities. Read about how I integrate this strategy into my physical and chemical changes unit on Halloween.

    turn existing science lessons into ngss aligned cer activities       Don’t stress about using this method in your classroom. If you already have lab write ups for your science activities, use these science strategies to quickly turn them into CER NGSS approved activities. This will also allow you to get your students to partake in argumentation as they support their learning with data and evidence from the activity.

           Do you still have questions about CER; claim, evidence, reasoning? Let me know in the comments below.

    Join my science tribe to gain access to FREE graphic organizers to use in your classroom. 

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      How to Quickly Incorporate CER Strategy into Existing Science Lessons

      One hesitation from science teachers in using the CER claim, evidence, reasoning strategy is that you can no longer use your preexisting science activities. This is so untrue! Incorporating the CER method is easy and requires minimal work from you.

               If you are unsure of what the CER strategy is or if it is right for your classroom, you can learn the basics here.

               While there are several ways to do this, you will choose which one works the best for your classroom needs. The way that I incorporated it into my classroom was by eliminating the entire scientific method write up. With the implementation of the NGSS standards, teaching the scientific method will look different than it did in the past as scientists feel that it is not realistic to complete an experiment in a linear fashion.
      NGSS and CER strategy in minutes

               This thinking as led me to edit my lab write-ups to look more like a graphic organizer. Students are given the problem and create a hypothesis. Their hypothesis may later become their claim but I do not allow them to determine this until they have conducted the experiment. Observations are collected on the same sheet so that students can compare their hypotheses and observations to then formulate their claim. Students then cite evidence from their observations to support their claim and finally connect this to scientific reasoning.
      States of matter and the CER method in the science classroom

               Another way to incorporate CER without having to edit your prior science lessons is to have students use the claim, evidence, reasoning formula for their conclusion. This allows them to explain their scientific thinking in a concise way and allows you to easily implement the strategy without having to change the way you normally teach this concept.  
      grade 4 5 6 7 science students aligns with NGSS standards

      Part of the NGSS standards are to allow students a chance to argue their thinking. While some students can naturally do this on the fly, others need more structure and the ability to formulate their answer first. The CER method will easily allow your students to do this while providing you with an assessment of their understanding. 

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        Using Picture Books in the Science Classroom

        PIcture books ideas and tips to complement the grade 4, 5, 6 science classroom

        * This post contains affiliate links. * 

        Integrating science into the upper elementary classroom can be difficult with so much emphasis on Common Core standards in math and ELA. Often, science and social studies is an afterthought in the education of the United States student. Knowing the pressures of the classroom teacher, I have been creative in how to infuse literacy skills and concepts into my science curriculum so that students are engaged but also so that administrators can be persuaded into seeing the value of science as part of a well-rounded education.

               Having a master's degree in literacy, I feel that the skills needed to become a good reader should transpire throughout all content areas. Science is a topic that I am so passionate about because of the hands-on, real-life nature. While all of my science units include informational reading passages for students to gain knowledge about the concept, this summer I realized I wanted to do more.

               One goal of mine this year is to incorporate picture books into the science curriculum. Picture books help stimulate students in different ways. Students are drawn in not only by the wording of the book but also the pictures. For students who are struggling readers, picture books help them to gain a better understanding of what is going on in the story.

        Why use picture books with upper elementary and secondary students?

        • Illustrations are just as important as the words. The illustrations can help them observe more about the story and make deeper inferences.
        • Picture books will better hold student attention than informational text articles. 
        • “Colorful pictures and graphics in picture books are superior to many texts for explaining abstract ideas,” (Kralina 1993). 
        • Improve reading skills in science. Picture books give you another opportunity to work on critical thinking skills.
        • Correct science misconceptions. Picture books are more likely to have scientific inaccuracies. This is OK because it gives you an opportunity to have a conversation about it and correct student thinking.
        • Reading aloud allows you to model fluency for your students. It also allows you to continue to work on comprehension strategies as you stop and question student knowledge. 

         How to Use Picture Books in the Secondary Classrooms.

               How you use picture books in your classroom is entirely up to you. You can use it:

        An introduction to the topic this will allow all students to gain background knowledge before they start learning about the science concept. Having this information will prep their minds into focusing on the concept. It will also engage them on the topic and get their minds to start to question what they are learning about.

        Wherever you see fit! It’s your classroom, your science unit, your students. If you know you have a few minutes left and can squeeze in reading, go for it. While you can make it an activity for the class period, it doesn’t HAVE to be. Sometimes the most meaningful lessons are the ones where my students and I were having a conversation about a book.

        At the end of the unit once your students have gained all the knowledge to rock the science concept, you can reinforce their learning through a picture book. Your questioning will determine how much, or how little, they will get out of it. 

        Where do I start?

               Here are some picture books that I have used or researched to use for my science units. Have a great idea? Share it below!

        Observations and inferences:

        Making observations and inferences using picture books

        • Seven Blind Mice: When reading, do not show students the pages that depict the elephant. Have them guess what the mice are running on. 

        States of Matter:

        Chemical and physical changes:

        • Pancakes, Pancakes by Eric Carle I will also be making pancakes with my students to question them about the physical and chemical changes while we are cooking.

        Force and Motion:

        • Gravity is a Mystery Another book that gives students the basics of the concept. Great for an introduction to your unit. 

        Environmental Hazards

        These books help to support a unit on natural disasters or environmental issues in the world. 

        Food Chains and Food Webs:

        Butternut Hollow Pond: Review ecosystems using this delightful book that is also rich in figurative language.
        Using picture books like Butternut Hollow Pond to enhance your science unit on ecosystems and ecology

        Human Body:

        Magic School Bus: The Human Body
        I am Human by Susan Verde

        As I come across more great finds, I will add them here. If you have any books that you use to enhance your science units, please comment below so I can add them to the list. 

        We've got tons of ideas for turning your students into "wild readers!" Be sure to check out these other helpful ideas for upper elementary teachers! 

        Strategies to Help Motivate Reluctant Readers // The Little Ladybug Shop

        How to Promote a Love of Reading In Your Classroom // The Stellar Teacher Company

        Looking for more great ideas to add to your science classroom? Consider joining my science tribe. You will receive weekly tips and ideas to easily implement into your classroom. Sign up below to access the F-R-E-E resources to use with Dr. Xargle's Book of Earth Hounds.

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          Using picture books to enhance the grade 4, 5, 6 science classroom curriculum NGSS and common core

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