I Wonder: Writing Scientific Explanations With Students

K - 2
Lesson Plan Type
Estimated Time
Eight 40-minute sessions
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If you have ever had your class interrupted by a thunderstorm or by a bug crawling across the carpet, you know that students naturally question the world around them. This lesson encourages second-grade students to ask questions about a specific topic, choose a particular question to explore in detail, and research the question using a variety of resources. Students organize their information on a "What we think we know," "What we have confirmed we know," and "New facts we have learned through research" (TCF) chart. They then collaborate to write a class scientific explanation.

Featured Resources

From Theory to Practice

Buss and Karnowski suggest that seeking information to find out about a topic of interest or to confirm already existing knowledge is a common activity for children. Stead challenges teachers to pair information seeking with scientific exploration to create an even more enriching experience for students.

Stead defines scientific explanations as a kind of writing that "describes why something happens or is as it is (for example, why wood floats)" or "describes how something works or was formed (for example, how planes fly)."

Common Core Standards

This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.

State Standards

This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.

NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts

  • 1. Students read a wide range of print and nonprint texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.
  • 3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
  • 5. Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.
  • 7. Students conduct research on issues and interests by generating ideas and questions, and by posing problems. They gather, evaluate, and synthesize data from a variety of sources (e.g., print and nonprint texts, artifacts, people) to communicate their discoveries in ways that suit their purpose and audience.
  • 8. Students use a variety of technological and information resources (e.g., libraries, databases, computer networks, video) to gather and synthesize information and to create and communicate knowledge.
  • 12. Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).

Materials and Technology

  • Why Do Leaves Change Colors? by Betsy Maestro (HarperTrophy, 1994)

  • I Am a Leaf by Jean Marzollo (Scholastic Cartwheel, 1998)

  • Computers with Internet access

  • Chart paper and markers

  • Art supplies

  • Sticky notes




1. Throughout this project, you will want to continually immerse students in the science topic they will be writing about through experiments and hands-on investigations. Choose science experiments to use with students from the Science Explorations handout or from Science NetLinks. It may be helpful to arrange your science block back-to-back with your writing block or lengthen your writing time to include science investigations.

2. Choose one question about trees for the class to research. Sample questions about trees include:
  • Why do leaves fall off in autumn?

  • Why do leaves change colors?

  • Why do trees have different leaves?

  • How do trees make food?
You can use a different topic if you choose; the examples in this lesson are about trees. Prepare a sheet of chart paper and label as "I wonder..."

3. Obtain and familiarize yourself with Why Do Leaves Change Colors? by Betsy Maestro and I Am a Leaf by Jean Marzollo.

4. Gather an assortment of nonfiction books about trees; the Tree Booklist has some suggestions. You may also choose to have your students use the Internet to do research if you have computers in your classroom or access to a computer lab. Montshire Museum of Science: Fall Foliage, Idaho Forest: Forests Are For Kids!, and Carly's Kids Corner are some websites related to trees that you might find useful. To find appropriate websites on other topics, use a search engine like Ask Kids or visit Science NetLinks. Familiarize yourself with and bookmark any websites you will be using, and if necessary, reserve the computer lab for one 40-minute session (see Session 4, Step 3).

5. Make a copy of the Leaves! Leaves! sheet for each student in the class.

6. Create a TCF chart with three columns titled, "What we think we know," "What we have confirmed we know," and "New facts we have learned through research."

7. Prepare the Letter to Parents with the correct information and dates; make a copy for each student in the class.

8. Take the sentences from one of the Paragraph Puzzles and write them each on a sticky note (see Session 6, Step 1).

9. Familiarize yourself with the Scientific Explanation Assessment Rubric.

Student Objectives

Students will

  • Gain scientific knowledge by exploring a topic, engaging in hands-on experiments, and posing questions

  • Gain knowledge about writing by learning about the structure of scientific explanations and how to write paragraphs

  • Demonstrate comprehension of how to answer a scientific query by doing their own research and helping confirm their own and other's responses

  • Apply what they have learned about writing and scientific explanations by organizing notes into paragraphs and by illustrating these paragraphs appropriately

Session 1

1. Begin this lesson by immersing students in your selected topic through an actual experience. If you have chosen trees, study them on the playground. Have students take bark rubbings, collect leaves, measure the circumference of the trunks with a tape measure, and look for insects or small animals that live around or in them. Then bring students inside and give them time to look at their findings through a hand lens.

2. After students have had time to examine each other's tree findings, take the chart paper labeled "I wonder..." and tell students that after exploring trees you have many questions or "wonderings" about them. Write down the question you have chosen for the class to research, for example, "I wonder why leaves fall in the autumn." Then begin asking students what their "wonderings" are. You may choose to give each student a sticky note to write or draw his or her "wondering" on.

3. Allow time for students to share their questions while you write them down on the chart paper. If students have written or drawn on sticky notes, have them read their notes before sticking them on the chart paper. You may need to write a caption for the drawings to help the class remember the questions.

4. Tell students that over the next few weeks they will be trying to answer some of these questions. Explain that this kind of writing is called scientific explanation. Ask students to brainstorm a preliminary list of what makes a good scientific explanation (e.g., facts, research, illustrations). Throughout this project, continue to display this list and add to it as students learn more.

5. Ask each student to choose a question from the list of "wonderings" that he or she knows the answer to and wants to explain. Have them use paper to write or draw their explanations. This first explanation is for assessment purposes only. It allows you to pinpoint teaching areas, and allows students to see growth from their first writing to their final product.

6. Once everyone is finished, have students partner up, sit knee-to-knee and eye-to-eye, and share their explanations.

Note: After this session, assess each student's explanation using the Scientific Explanation Assessment Rubric. After reviewing the assessments, select several teaching points specific to writing scientific explanations. For example, you may have noticed that none of your students used illustrations. In the following sessions, while students are researching the question, you will want to make a point of showing your students how authors and illustrators use diagrams and illustrations.

Session 2

1. Begin with a hands-on investigation relating to your topic. If your question is "Why do leaves fall off trees in autumn?," then a start to this session might be to have students work in small groups to sort and classify leaves collected from the playground or from home. You can use the Leaves! Leaves! sheet, which asks students to create their own sorting rules, to guide this exploration.

2. After students have completed their exploration, gather them together for a class discussion. Draw students' attentions to the list of questions from Session 1. Share the "wondering" you wrote at the beginning of the session and tell them that they will research the answer and write a class scientific explanation.

3. Ask students where they might find the information to answer the question you have chosen. List their suggestions on a piece of chart paper, adding resources to the list that students leave out. The list should include books, the Internet, experts, experiments, and even family members or friends. Explain to students that the items on the list can be called resources and that they will be using them to research the answer to the question.

4. After creating the list, show students the Letter to Parents. Explain that their job is to conduct research at home. They can use any of the types of resources listed to find information, but they must be ready to report back to the class in their own words.

5. Give students a break from sitting by having each group return to their pile of leaves. Have one group share their rule for sorting the leaves and ask the other groups to see if they can sort their leaves in this way. Allow several groups to share their sorting rules.

6. Gather students together for more discussion. Have the TCF chart (see Preparation, Step 7) up where students can see it.

7. Ask students to brainstorm what they already know about why leaves fall off the trees in autumn. As students share, jot down important words on sticky notes and add them to the "think" column on the chart. Model note-taking as you are writing. For example, students might say they know that every spring the leaves grow back again. Tell them that instead of writing the whole sentence you will just write key words: "spring, leaves grow back." Make sure that you tell students that later when you put the information together you will rewrite it as a sentence.

8. Later, as students begin to research you can move the correct comments from this session to the "confirmed" column and add new items to the "new facts" column. Because students will be getting information from a variety of sources you may want to make a rule that any new information that comes in must be confirmed by two sources. Once it has been confirmed twice, you can move that information to the "confirmed" column.

9. End this session when students become restless with the brainstorming (usually after 5 to 15 minutes).

Session 3

1. Begin this session by allowing students to share the information they have researched at home. If you have many students who have brought in information, have a pair/share session so that everyone has a chance to talk about their information before meeting with the group. Make sure that those students who did not bring in information are paired with students who did.

2. After students have had a chance to share with their classmates, bring them together to add their information to the TCF chart. When a student shares, have him or her read the information aloud. Look on the TCF chart to see if this information confirms something that is in the "think" column. If it does, move that sticky note to the "confirmed" column. If it is new information add it to the "new facts" column and ask the class if anyone can confirm this information with research that they found, moving it as appropriate.

3. Take a break and let students do a hands-on exploration related to your topic that you have selected from the Science Explorations handout. Younger students may want to use fall colors to make leaf rubbings. Visit Forestry for Kids to find instructions.

4. After completing the exploration, read Why Do Leaves Change Colors? by Betsy Maestro. Before reading, draw students' attentions to the information on the TCF chart that still needs to be confirmed. Tell students that you would like them to listen for any information in the book that can help confirm thinking or any new information that might be helpful in answering the question. You can also use this reading to draw attention to the teaching points you want to address.

5. After reading the book, ask students if there is any information from the chart that can be moved to the "confirmed" column or any new information that needs to be added to the "new facts" column. As students share new information that they learned about leaves, keep them on track by asking how this information will help them to answer the question.

Session 4

1. Begin this session by reading I Am a Leaf by Jean Marzollo. Use the same read-aloud strategy as in Session 3.

2. After reading, discuss any information from the TCF chart that can be moved to the "confirmed" column or any new information that can be added to the "new facts" column.

3. Tell students that you would like them to research the question on their own using the same steps that you used for reading the two books. Show them the selection of nonfiction books and websites. If you have emergent or nonreaders in your classroom, show them how they can get information from illustrations and pictures.

4. Start off each student with one sticky note. Remind them before they read to first check the TCF chart. (Make sure it is hanging in a readily visible spot.) While they are reading, students should look for new information or help to confirm information already on the chart.

5. Students should read and research independently or with partners. For younger readers, it may be helpful to have students research with older students or adult classroom helpers. Students may wish to share and trade books with one another. Have extra sticky notes on hand for your avid researchers who find lots of information to add to the chart. During this research time, meet briefly with students to check that they understand what they are looking for. After about 15 minutes, have students put their books away and bring their sticky notes to the meeting area.

6. Spend about 10 minutes letting the students share their information. Check the TCF chart to see if it is new or confirming information. If it is new information, ask the rest of the class if they found any information to help confirm it. Add the sticky note to the appropriate column. If there is a disagreement about information, have students find the books that they gathered the information from and read the information to the class.

Note: At this point in the process, decide whether your class has enough information to begin writing the scientific explanation. If they do not, schedule more research time in class.

Session 5

Note: If there is an important piece of information in the "new facts" column that has yet to be confirmed and you know it to be true, move it to the "confirmed" column before this session begins. Explain to students what you have done.

1. Tell students that in this session they will take all of the research and sort it into groups. Explain that they will want information that is alike in the same group.

2. Students should be familiar with the information on the chart. Begin by asking the class if they see or know of any sticky notes that go together in a certain way. If students have never sorted information this way, you may want to model putting a group together first. If possible, create enough categories so that students can work in groups of two or three to write.

3. Once the notes are sorted, you may see that some groups have a lot of information while others have very little. If this happens you may want to take some time to research this particular area to add more information or you may decide that this topic is not essential in answering the question.

Note: This process can be lengthy, so you might want to split the process of sorting into shorter sessions.

Session 6

1. On a piece of chart paper, have the list of categories from Session 5 that will make up your scientific explanation. Have the sticky notes with the tree sentences ready to share with students (see Preparation, Step 8).

2. Begin by reading the information on each of the sticky notes. Tell students that the first thing they want to do is decide the order of the information. Think out loud as you sequence the notes in a way that makes sense.

3. Once the notes are sequenced, think out loud as you turn the notes into sentences, drawing students' attentions to what should be in the opening and concluding sentences and modeling how you turn the notes into your own words. Read the final paragraph aloud.

4. Assign or allow students to decide the category they will write about. Write the names of students beside each category on a chart you post at the front of the class. Ideally, two or three students will work on each category.

5. Give students the sticky notes from their category. Students who are collaborating on a category should decide together which order to put the notes in. Then they should write their information in paragraph form with a beginning and ending sentence. Emergent readers and writers should use the sticky note information to write one or two sentences about each category on a single page.

6. Students may still have questions about the writing process. After about 10 minutes of observing, if you see that students are having difficulty, draw them back together and review the part of the process they seem to be struggling with.

7. Before going on to the next session, students should have completed a draft of their paragraph or sentences. (If you decide that students are not ready to tackle writing paragraphs on their own, continue practicing this task over the next few days using ReadWriteThink's Fact Fragment Frenzy or the Paragraph Puzzles.)

Session 7

1. Meet with each group during this session. Ask students to read their draft to you. Use the Scientific Explanation Assessment Rubric to guide your discussion after they have read their draft.

2. Use this time to help students with skills that are not on the assessment as well. For example, if students write a list without commas, tell them that the list needs commas and show them where to put them. Students should make these changes themselves during the conference.

After you have reviewed the paragraph, ask how the group will illustrate it. Here are some questions for discussion:
  • What is your paragraph trying to explain?

  • What kind of illustration or picture would help to explain this?

  • What will you need to label on your illustration?

  • What part will each of you take in creating the illustration?
3. After the conference, each group should have a plan for revision and their illustration. Students should revise their paragraphs before Session 8.

Session 8

1. Give each group a piece of paper. Decide as a class whether you want your pages to be horizontal or vertical.

2. Students should write their sentence or paragraph on the page and illustrate their part of the explanation. Students should distribute the work evenly. They may want to take turns writing sentences.

3. When students have completed publishing their page, have them double-check for spelling, punctuation, and neatness. Have students correct any mistakes that they find.

4. Decide on a title for the scientific explanation. Make a cover out of construction paper and bind the book using binding combs, binder rings, or yarn.

5. Bring students back together and ask them to reflect on what they have learned about writing a scientific explanation, inviting them to look at their original explanation as they do so. Have them also return to the list of what makes a good scientific explanation (Session 1, Step 4) and make any additions. Ask students to look at their final explanation and find examples of the things listed. Finally, ask them about the things they would like to work on as scientific writers.


  • Decide as a class whom you would like to share the book with. Some possible publishing ideas are to:
  • Invite parents in for a publishing celebration

  • Display the book in the school library

  • Add the book to your classroom collection of nonfiction books

  • Publish the classroom explanations on your school or classroom website
  • Have students refer to the "I wonder..." chart that they created in Session 1 and select a question to answer on their own.

Student Assessment / Reflections

  • Informally assess students' comprehension of the topic you have chosen, how to research it, and how to write a scientific explanation during class discussions throughout the lesson.

  • Assess students' abilities to conduct research by collecting the responses they generate at home and in class. Look for the ability to
  • find information that answers the question

  • use charts, tables, and illustrations to get information

  • use a variety of resources

  • put information into their own words
  • Use the Scientific Explanation Assessment Rubric to evaluate students' paragraphs; you will also want to look at how well students were able to revise their work after conferences and how well they follow the illustration plan you discussed.

  • Observe students as they work in their groups to assess their collaborative work. Look for students listening and sharing ideas, using time wisely, solving problems in a positive and productive way, collaborating to create quality work, and sharing responsibility for the work.

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