Seeds of Science, Roots of Reading Program Helps Students Develop Explanations

The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) encourage three-dimensional thinking in students. 3-D thinking, and the process of developing scientific explanations, are curiosity-driven: They involve wondering, posing questions, and making observations; reading books to discover what others have learned; planning investigations; gathering and analyzing information; reflecting on what was learned in light of new evidence; and proposing explanations and predictions. Developing explanations requires critical and logical thinking, considering alternative explanations, and being willing to change one’s ideas when new evidence requires it.

Not only do scientists develop their explanations, but so do good readers, and information gathered from text is an important source of evidence. Therefore, developing explanations serves as one of the central strategies in the learning and teaching of science and literacy in the Seeds of Science/Roots of Reading® program developed by Amplify. Teachers can access the free 33 strategy guides that promote the development of explanations.  Those strategy guides can be accessed on the Seeds of Science website

A Cycle for Developing Explanations While Conducting Science Investigations.

Much has been written about using the science and engineering practices and instructional models when teaching students to develop explanations (American Association for the Advancement of Science Benchmarks for Science Literacy 1993; Chinn and Malhotra 2002; Hapgood, Magnusson, and Palincsar 2004; Krajcik et al 1998; White and Frederiksen 1998). The Seeds of Science/Roots of Reading cycle for developing explanations is grounded in this research and can help students better understand how the explanatory process can be applied to answer important questions in science.

Each unit incorporates selected aspects of developing in-depth explanations. Explanatory skills are developed by having students interpret visual representations, use visual evidence to make inferences, model how to write science explanations, and connect science and everyday words to enhance observations or derive meaning from data.  Additionally, one unit for each grade-level span engages students in a scientific investigation to encourage reflection on the cycle and how it is used to develop new ideas in science. Students participate in each phase of the cycle as they investigate scientific questions posed by the teacher or generated by students and design their investigations and make scientific explanations. This encourages the use of many science and engineering practices, including asking questions and defining problems; engaging in argument from evidence; analyzing and interpreting data; constructing explanations and defining solutions; and obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information.

The units also introduce students to a cycle for developing explanations to help them understand that scientists don’t march through the steps in a particular order, but often alternate among steps as they refine their ideas and use growing evidence and experience to modify their plans.

One widespread student misconception is that only one “scientific method” exists. Scientists engage in science learning through observations, running trails, asking questions, designing and revising investigations to test another aspect of the problem, and collaborating with colleagues  to enhance their explanations. Recognizing this aspect of science also acknowledges scientists’ creativity and their individual contributions to an expanding body of scientific knowledge. Students use this creative process to develop their explanations and enhance their understanding about how things work. Students can also use their educational gifts to express this in many other ways.

Stages of Developing Explanations.

Evidence provides a foundation for developing explanations. The Seeds of Science/Roots of Reading program helps students develop critical-thinking skills while devising well-supported explanations based on evidence. The program uses a defined trajectory with increasing sophistication to help students employ evidence to form logical explanations.

Initially, students search for evidence to support their ideas. Next, they use that evidence to make inferences and create explanations and predictions, while following the logical course of the data. They then seek additional evidence to support their ideas, thereby expanding their confidence in the conclusions that can be made. Finally, students are ready to substantially change their ideas and explanations when confronted with conflicting evidence that they know is substantial and persuasive.

The chart below shows the relationship of individual explanatory skills to the foundational process of making and revising explanations based on evidence.

Seeds/Roots Stages of Developing Explanations

Stage of Developing Explanations

(increases in sophistication from bottom up)

Explanatory Skill


4. Change explanations based on new evidence.

Critiquing models, comparing and contrasting explanations, revising explanations, evaluating evidence, making connections

3. Probe for additional evidence.

Posing questions, investigating scientific questions, planning an investigation, conducting systematic observations, conducting experiments, using models, organizing and representing data

2. Make inferences from firsthand and/or secondhand evidence and create an explanation.

Making inferences, determining cause and effect, making predictions, creating hypotheses, making explanations from evidence, visualizing and using mental models, comparing and contrasting, analyzing data, drawing conclusions, summarizing, accessing and applying prior knowledge, sorting and classifying based on evidence

1. Search for evidence to support ideas.

Making observations, using tools to extend senses, recording data, using features of informational text to locate information, taking notes, sorting


Teachers can find a variety of resources for this process at Under the Teacher Resources heading, you will find strategy guides for growing skills in developing explanations, understanding the connections between science and everyday words, teaching scientific explanations, and showing how scientists make inferences.

American Association for the Advancement of Science. 1993. Benchmarks for science literacy. New York: Oxford University Press.

Chinn, C. A., and B. A. Malhotra. 2002. Epistemologically authentic inquiry in schools: A theoretical framework for evaluating inquiry tasks. Science Education, 86(2), 175–218.

Hapgood, S., S. J. Magnusson, and A. S. Palincsar. 2004. Teacher, text and experience: A case of young children’s scientific inquiry. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 13(4), 455–505.

Krajcik, J., P. Blumenfeld, R. Marx, K. Bass, J. Fredericks, and E. Soloway. 1998. Inquiry in project-based science classrooms: Initial attempts by middle school students. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 7(3–4), 313–350.

Seeds of Science, Roots of Reading. Retrieved from

White, B. Y., and J. R. Frederiksen. 1998. Inquiry, modeling, and metacognition: Making science accessible to all students. Cognition & Instruction, 16(1), 3–118.

Jim McDonald

Jim McDonald is a Professor of Science Education at Central Michigan University in the Department of Teacher Education and Professional Development.  He advises the NSTA preservice student chapter at CMU, is director of the Central Michigan GEMS Center, and is currently President of the Council for Elementary Science International, an NSTA affiliate organization.



This article was featured in the February issue of Next Gen Navigator, a monthly e-newsletter from NSTA delivering information, insights, resources, and professional learning opportunities for science educators by science educators on the Next Generation Science Standards and three-dimensional instruction. Click here to sign up to receive the Navigator every month.

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