Because integrating language arts into any subject is a critical cross-curricular skill, we need students to master non-fiction reading to be able to learn, innovate, and think creatively. How can we, as teachers, support this by teaching strong nonfiction reading skills? This is part four of a five-part series on supporting your middle school students in improving nonfiction reading skills.
When students return from a break, even a three-day weekend, it is like they are emerging from a magic spell. Maybe they took a bite from a poisoned apple, and now they can’t wake up to the realities of learning in the classroom. During the second semester of learning, administrators, districts, and your expectations for students and their academic abilities ramp up. Students know the classroom routines. You’ve established procedures for warm-ups, transitions, and submitting work on Learning Management Systems. Now it’s time to help the students buckle down and “whistle while they work!”
A major strategy for teaching written communication in middle school science is claim, evidence, and reasoning, also known as “CER”. CER creates a structure for students to use when responding to a nonfiction text. There are so many texts out there that have unsupported claims, both in school and in our national media. Teaching students to scrutinize sources, and to find valid evidence to support a claim is critical for their academic growth and to improve media literacy.
Finding Evidence to Match a Claim
It’s fairly simple to teach students the claim and evidence parts of this writing format. You can overcome the most challenging part-making sure the evidence matches the claim-with practice! Here is a sample of a document I would use to kick-off my students’ practice with finding pieces of evidence to match a claim.
When you first teach this, you can support your students in feeling more confident if you teach the skill with a lower-level text. Why? Because your main goal is to practice finding evidence to match a claim, not to assess their knowledge of the content.
Showing that the Evidence Matches the Claim
Next up, find a nonfiction text that has a very clear claim. Have students uncover their thinking and strategies by asking them questions about their process.
Once students have a solid foundation for identifying the author’s claim and finding supporting evidence, you can move on to teaching them to the reasoning part of CER. But should you? I’ve found that students struggle with the reasoning step in sixth grade. To support their development with this skill, I substitute Argument for reasoning and switch up the process name to “CEA.”
Writing an Argument: CEA
Students can write use their claim and evidence to write a short argument paragraph. The structure is: Topic sentence: Claim, Body: 2-3 pieces of evidence, Conclusion: Restate the claim. For younger middle school students or emergent readers and writers, this can be a stepping stone to CER in seventh and eighth grades.
Reasoning: The Toughest Step of CER
Most students struggle with the “reasoning” step of CER because the teachers struggle with understanding what this step is asking kids to do. A common mistake that students make is to simply write MORE evidence! Earlier, I shared that students should show how the evidence connects to the claim. This is a half-way step to flexing their reasoning muscles. When students write the reasoning, they are justifying why the evidence supports the claim.
Here’s an example: In this example, a student is making a claim
Claim: The unknown metal is aluminum because it has the same density as aluminum.
Evidence: The density of the unknown metal is 2.7 g/cm^3.
Reasoning: Density is a characteristic property of aluminum, which means it is a way we can identify aluminum using the known density. The density of tin is 5.8 g/cm^3 so the metal can’t be tin.
Teaching CEA and CER takes time, but with the right resources and an intentional plan, you can help grow your students’ writing skills.