Next Generation Science Standards: Offering Equitable Opportunities for ELLs to Engage in Science

Emily Miller is a second- and third-grade ESL and Bilingual Resource Teacher in Madison, Wisconsin and a member of the Next Generation Science Standards' (NGSS) Elementary Writing and Diversity & Equity Teams.

In that role, Emily served as the lead writer of the NGSS case study for ELLs, which is based on science instruction in her diverse classroom using strategies for English language development and records of her students' experiences engaging with the NGSS.

In this article written for Colorín Colorado, Emily provides an overview of ways in which the NGSS provide ELLs with more equitable science learning opportunities, as well as considerations for implementing the NGSS with ELLs.

Note: For more on the NGSS and our related blog posts, take a look at our NGSS resource section!


The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) identify science, engineering practices, and content that all students at the K-12 level should master to be prepared for college, careers, or citizenship.

As part of the initiative, the NGSS Diversity and Equity Writing Team, led by Okhee Lee, involved teachers who specialize in teaching science to students from diverse demographic groups to inform the writing process, including Netosh Jones, Urban Education; and Rita Januszyk, Gifted and Talented Education. I represented ESL/Bilingual Education.

Our task was to ensure that the NGSS are accessible to diverse populations of students through bias reviews of the standards, teaching the NGSS in our classrooms during the writing process, and writing about our experiences in the form of case studies. (See additional information in Appendix D: Making the Next Generation Science Standards Accessible to All Students.)

NGSS shifts

The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) make use of current cognitive research about how students learn science and what they can understand and do at different ages. They describe learning as Three Dimensional, involving a blend of science and engineering practices, core ideas, and crosscutting concepts (ideas that cut across disciplines).

There are five major shifts in the NGSS:

  1. The standards are organized around a small set of disciplinary core ideas.
  2. They build and apply these ideas coherently across time.
  3. The science and engineering practices take a central role.
  4. They include crosscutting concepts.
  5. They focus on explaining phenomena and solving problems in the natural and designed world. (In science, the term "phenomenon" refers to any naturally occurring event that will take place under certain, predictable conditions (i.e., a sound when a chair hits the floor, a waterfall, a chemical reaction, etc.).

The NGSS will offer new opportunities for ELLs in science class. Based on current college and career trajectories, ELLs, as a group, have been excluded from Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) opportunities. As the NGSS are more rigorous than most current states' standards and involve language intensive practices, they present both opportunities and challenges for ELLs.

However, among the eight science and engineering practices outlined in the NGSS, there are four components that are particularly exciting in classroom practice because they provide equitable learning opportunities for ELLs. These components include the following and are explained in more detail below:

  • the use of crosscutting concepts
  • the science and engineering practice of modeling
  • the practice of developing explanations and designing solutions
  • the addition of engineering practices and core ideas

Crosscutting Concepts

Scientists observe phenomena in the natural world through a specific (scientific) lens that can be taught to students through the use of crosscutting concepts (Miller, E., et al, in press). These are essential but implicit ideas (e.g., patterns, systems and systems models, scale and proportion), that scientists use across settings to make sense of natural phenomenon, but they have been largely overlooked by teachers and invisible to students. These crosscutting concepts can be acquired intuitively after many experiences in science, but without explicit teaching, students do not flexibly use the lenses to ask questions and describe phenomena.

Now, with the NGSS, the teacher might guide the lesson and/or unit with one of the seven crosscutting concepts emphasized in the standards in mind. For example, when a child observes the ice caves (ice pillars fused together to form caves in the red cliffs on the shoreline) of northern Wisconsin, they might say, "Wow, that's amazing!" They would observe and delight in the caves' "magical" features.

However, a scientist would approach the same phenomenon differently; their lens inspires different types of questions:

  • "Where have I seen something similar to the ice caves, and under what conditions are they formed?" (Crosscutting concept: Patterns)
  • "What is it about the molecular structure of water that cause these to be formed this way?" (Crosscutting concept: Structure and function)
  • A scientist might also consider the entire system involved, the weather changes and climate specifics that interacted with the earth and water to form the ice caves. (Crosscutting concept: Systems and systems models)

Crosscutting concepts and ELLs

Crosscutting concepts can be positioned explicitly in the driving question. They should frame the experience of the phenomenon and the approach for the entire unit.

The seven crosscutting concepts provide a repeated structure of language support because they can occur repeatedly throughout the year, across science disciplines. Understanding for ELLs can be reinforced as each crosscutting concept calls for specific language, discourse, and vocabulary with which to approach making sense of science. Teachers can explain and build on the continuity of the crosscutting concepts, even across the school day, and use tools such as conceptual webs, a picture dictionary, and purposeful, guided lessons to provide more access to the science content and encourage participation in collaborative sense making.


Developing models is an active process in which the student engages and will progress throughout the years, from Kindergarten to twelfth grade. Models can be drawings, diagrams, 3-dimensional objects, and representations that are student-created and are revised as new evidence comes to light. They must show relationships between variables, have a causal mechanism, and predict or explain phenomena. The model serves as a student-centered, often conceptual or abstract, explanation of the student's own understanding of the phenomenon. It can provide valuable insight for the teacher as to planning next steps to appropriately build learning and progress the lesson.

Modeling and ELLs

Teachers should attempt to include the practice of developing and using models into every lesson that is designed with ELLs in mind.

For ELLs, the evolving model can serve as a language scaffold supporting the students' communication of their science and engineering ideas while enabling discourse between students. Not only are the students more determined to learn the vocabulary of the components in their model in order to describe and predict the phenomenon, they also have a developing, often pictorial, description of how they make sense of the science. This process of referring to the models can enable receptive and productive language and aid in meaning making between students.

The process of revising models based on new information is also language intensive. It requires that students work collaboratively to account for contradictory evidence in their models. The conceptual model can become the conduit for other science and engineering practices; the students can engage in argument about why they should revise their model in a certain way or ensure that the patterns they observe in the data are represented in the model. Finally, the student-generated model is a window into the students' current understanding of the core ideas and is an opportunity for informal or summative assessment.

Modeling provides for:

  • An authentic and meaningful discourse around complex science ideas
  • A student-centered language scaffold
  • An avenue for engagement with other science and engineering practices
  • Informal or summative assessment opportunity for ELLs

Developing Explanations

Another NGSS practice that involves complex language and offers more equitable learning opportunity for ELLs is constructing explanations and designing solutions. The Claim-Evidence-Reasoning (C-E-R) approach is a useful tool for helping students understand this process.

Claim-Evidence-Reasoning approach

The scientific explanation involves a claim about the phenomenon under study; evidence, which is the scientific data that supports the claim; and reasoning, which is the justification linking the evidence and claim (McNeill, K. L. & Krajcik, J., 2012; Zembal-Saul, C., et al, 2013). This complete scientific explanation represents a structure of English language that needs to be taught to all students, and one that all students (ELLs and non-ELLs) struggle to produce.

Table 1: Claim-Evidence-Reasoning Summary

Developing Explanations


Answers the question; might be a "yes or no" question


Scientific data that supports the claim with appropriate and sufficient evidence


A justification linking the evidence and the claim and showing why the data counts as evidence to support the claim

The process of developing these explanations mirrors how scientists communicate, insisting that each other's claims make use of the appropriate evidence in a logical manner. Developing solutions in engineering similarly relies on generating ideas through language and makes use of the evidence collected. To engage in this practice, the student needs to take all of the information that they have encountered about the natural problem and design the best solution, keeping in mind the constraints of the problem.

Developing explanations/designing solutions and ELLs

Developing explanations and designing solutions can leverage classroom discourse in an authentic context that involves engaging with the scientific phenomenon and making sense of the phenomenon.

The science and engineering practice of developing explanations and designing solutions makes use of general science understanding, logical reasoning, creativity, and language, and can be scaffolded so that it is an arena where ELLs shine and contribute in meaningful ways to the overall discussion. ELL students can be supported to develop explanations by having the Claims-Evidence-Reasoning template remain static so that the ELL can expect the same structure and participate in high-level thinking.

C-E-R Examples & Templates

As you teach your students how to use the C-E-R method, it may be helpful to look at some examples. For example, younger students can use the following basic template:

For older students, you may wish to try a more detailed C-E-R Template, which you can see filled in with this sample lesson on plants, or this scientific explanation template, which provides a C-E-R chart and sentence frames for constructing a scientific explanation.

Evidence walls

Another way to support students in developing explanations is through the use of an "Evidence Wall". The Evidence Wall is a centrally located display of evidence composed of sentences on sentence strips, graphs, photos and drawings. It provides a way for students to locate and use the language they need for their C-E-R. In addition, the constant use of the student-created conceptual models can be leveraged to generate claims that adhere to the use of evidence. Non-ELLs do not have the corner on abstract thought, logical reasoning and creative ideas, and with purposeful, "planful" lesson design, ELLs have an arena to demonstrate their capacity in science.


Engineering, in the spirit of NGSS, can be thought of as applied science. Students must use the core ideas that they developed in the unit to solve an engineering problem based on real-world issues in the natural or designed world. The Framework for K-12 Science Education, which provides a foundation for the NGSS, describes specific engineering practices that correspond to, but are not the same as, the science practices in NGSS. Engineering can be introduced at the beginning to set the context for the science learning, or it can occur at the end of the unit to assess the students' understanding of the science ideas.

Example: Flooding in Cities

For example, the teacher could set up a problem on the sand table that mimics a city being flooded and pose the engineering problem, "Based on what we know about how rivers respond to changes in water volume and velocity, what is the optimal solution to keep the city safe?"

The students would then need to go about developing the prerequisite knowledge about rivers to solve the problem. The unit would end with the students developing, comparing, and refining their solutions.

Another equally engaging way to introduce engineering into the curriculum is at the end of the unit. In this example, the students would first learn about water and how it travels over, and changes, land. The teacher could assess the student understanding of the disciplinary core ideas by posing the problem of the city being flooded and then see if the students' solutions showed correct application of the core ideas through the generated solution. In the first approach, engineering is used to frame the learning; in the second approach, engineering is an assessment tool.

Engineering and ELLs

Engineering provides a relevant context for ELLs to connect between their real-world knowledge and school science.


ELLs can demonstrate an understanding of the disciplinary core ideas through their solutions. Through the engineering application, they are extended more than one avenue to grapple with the complex ideas and demonstrate science mastery. Also, engineering presents another contrastive opportunity for students to use the discipline specific and general language involved in the disciplinary core ideas. This repeated experience of making sense of science through meaningful application generates flexible and creative thinking in a highly engaging setting, without a new barrage of required language. Finally, engineering is the perfect context for collaborative grouping and is an avenue for authentic discourse that involves academic language.


Possible lesson template for ELL inclusion: A possible lesson template for ELL inclusion incorporates many opportunities for ELLs to engage in all of the high leverage language and complex thinking tasks. Within each step of the unit design, strategies for ELLs are incorporated appropriately to meet content and language objectives. Here is a brief outline of the template, with a more detailed description below:

Develop a Model — Literacy connection: Explain relationships and causal mechanisms

  1. Experience Phenomenon — Driving Question
    • Investigate Phenomenon — New evidence
  2. Revise Model Literacy Connection: Argue for revision
    • Investigate Phenomenon — Collaborative Research
  3. Revise Model — Based on research
  4. Engineering Connection — Assessment: Use evidence to explain optimal design of engineering solution

Example: Planning a rain garden

In step one the students might conduct an investigation of their school yard to answer the driving question "How does rain water move across the land and how does it affect the organisms that live there?" They might collect data about the different topography they encounter, where water collects in puddles, and the patterns in the distribution of plants and animals. They would develop an initial model that predicts and explains the changes rainwater has on earth materials and organisms. This is an opportunity to use the model to describe in writing or orally a causal mechanism for the phenomenon. The teacher could select one model to serve as a class model. Next the students conduct a series of new investigations to prepare for refinement of their initial models based on new and more detailed evidence.

In step two, students would collaboratively engage in revising their models to account for their new evidence. This could include new information about the amount of water that flows into storm drains, new understandings about how permeable different types of soil are to water, and ideas about the moisture requirements of different plant species. Students could argue in writing or orally for different revisions of the class model, supporting their arguments with evidence. In the above example, many students might have initially expected water to seep into the soil in the field. They might notice after further investigation that the rainwater flows in sheets across much of the field to storm drains.

Step three: Students will follow up their evidence gathering with research (reading literature, conducting an interview of an expert, or a video), based on a question generated in the step two revision. Once again, the students return to their model to account for the new evidence they have gathered. (For example, the students may discover that the water in the storm drains flows directly into the lakes, but it likely carries materials that are unsuitable for organisms living in the lake.) Student should be able to explain with the model the impact of a new situation, like heavy rain fall, or loose gravel, on the system.

Step Four could be the assessment opportunity for the teacher. After inspecting rain gardens and researching the positive impact they have on the ecological system, students could individually use their models to predict an ideal place for a rain garden in their school yard. The engineering design problem would be ideal for students to show their newly acquired science understanding of the relationships among rainwater flow, earth materials and organisms to solve a problem (lesson based on Follow the Drop (2013), Earth Partnership for Schools).

Strategies for ELLs in Science

In order to ensure that ELLs can fully engage with the practices described above, it's essential to continue to support their language development throughout the year, which can be done in a number of ways. The following list of strategies provides some ideas for reinforcing the practices described above, particularly in terms of academic language and discussion within a scientific context.

Table 2: Science Support Strategies for ELLs




Literacy strategies

Literacy strategies clarify and unpack the structure of texts, graphs, and scientific genres of writing. With literacy strategies ELLs are prompted and supported in accessing academic language.

  • teaching the uses of graphic organizers
  • reading trade books or literature with scientific themes
  • language functions: Describe, Explain, Predict, Infer, Conclude
  • concept map, word wall, Venn diagram
  • science journal
  • activating prior knowledge


Language support strategies

Language support strategies are often referred to as ESOL strategies that support the development of language, structures, and new vocabulary (academic and non-academic) in the science classroom.

  • hands-on activities,
  • realia (real objects or events)
  • multiple modes of representation (gestural, oral, pictorial, graphic, textual)
  • presentation of  key science vocabulary in context – both general academic terms and discipline specific terms

Discourse strategies

Discourse strategies involve tools and protocols that enable student-to-student communication to promote authentic sense-making in academic contexts.

  • expertise groups (jigsaw)
  • purposeful turn and talk
  • monitoring tone and speed of speech
  • collaborative group protocols and roles

Home language support

This strategy involves building on and making use of students' home language to support science learning in English. It includes teaching students how to create linguistic and cultural bridges between school science and the home to capitalize on emerging bilingualism.

  • introduce key science terminology in both languages
  • making contrasts explicit (use of language as well as words and structures)
  • highlight cognates as well as false cognates in both language
  • allow code-switching, opportunities for bilingual communication in the classroom

Home-culture connections

Students have historical, socio-cultural and community based "ways of knowing" and making sense of science. These connections allow teachers to access and build on the assets which the students bring from their homes, communities and locally-based natural settings.

  • students' cultural artifacts
  • community resources (e.g., local scientist)
  • place-based
  • socio-political action
  • funds of knowledge (a passed down family skill
  • conceptual web
  • allowing code-switching

Author's Note: Emily Miller is consulting with Earth Partnership for Schools and Community, a place-based program in Wisconsin. Some of the materials in this article are being adapted for Earth Partnership.


Earth Partnership for Schools, University of Wisconsin—Madison Arboretum. (2013).

Fathman, A., Crowther, D. (Eds.) (2006). Science for English Language Learners: K-12 Classroom Strategies. Arlington, VA: NSTA.

Lee, O., & Buxton, C. A. (2013). Integrating science learning and English language development for English language learners. Theory Into Practice, 52(1), 36-42.

Lee, O., Miller, E. & Januszyk, R., "All Standards, All Students: Next Generation Science Standards," Journal of Teacher Education. In press.

McNeill, K. L. & Krajcik, J. (2012). Supporting grade 5-8 students in constructing explanations in science: The claim, evidence and reasoning framework for talk and writing. New York, NY: Pearson Allyn & Bacon.

Miller, E., Niemi, K.J., Brunsell, E., Kneser, D.M. (In press). Exploring Crosscutting Concepts. In E Brunsell, D.M. Kneser, & K.J. Niemi (Eds.), Introducing Teachers and Administrators to the NGSS: A Professional Development Facilitator's Guide (79 - 82). Arlington, VA: NSTA Press

Next Generation Science Standards. (2013). Case Study 4: English Language Learners.

Rosebery, A. S., & Warren, B. (Eds.). (2008). Teaching science to English language learners: Building on students' strengths. Arlington, VA: National Science Teachers Association.

Zembal-Saul, C., McNeill, K. L., & Hershberger, K. (2013). What's your evidence? Engaging K-5 students in constructing explanations in science. New York, NY: Pearson Allyn & Bacon.


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