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How to Improve Science Writing Using the Expanded CER Template
How to Improve Science Writing Using the Expanded CER Template

The claim, evidence, reasoning template (CER) is a solid approach for young writers, but it needs to be flexible so writers can grow.

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Written by essaypop
Updated over a week ago
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Introduction

Ask any teacher who teaches elementary grades three through five or any middle school teacher who teaches their students to write about science, and they'll generally throw three letters at you, CER.

CER is an acronym for claim, evidence, and reasoning, and is a ubiquitous writing structure used by those who teach writing to younger students. Even high school teachers use the structure when they have their students compose science-based paragraphs and short essays.

Proponents of CER will tell you that claim, evidence, and reasoning form the fundamental building blocks of any proficient piece of academic writing, and that until students understand how these components work and flow together in a paragraph, they will not be able to tackle more sophisticated types of writing.

At essaypop, we tend to agree with this premise, and, in fact, most of the templates in our arsenal can in some way be deconstructed down into these three important elements.

To understand what a proficiently-written CER paragraph looks like, let's take a look at a simple paragraph written in a fifth-grade English class where students were being asked to analyze the meaning of a poem.

As you can see from this example, the student puts forward a claim that she wants to argue or prove. She then provides some sort of text evidence to support the claim, then, in her own words, she provides the reasoning that explains why the evidence supports the claim.

CER is a pretty simple recipe, and as students practice thinking and writing in this way, they begin to build the muscles needed to tackle the type of academic writing they will encounter in not only their English classes, but in social studies, science, and other subject areas as well. They're also preparing for the kinds of writing they will encounter in high school. Science teachers in particular have gravitated towards this approach to writing as it provides the kind of logical and sequential structure that is required in both scientific analysis and observational reports.

We agree, and that's why we feature the CER structure very prominently as one of our global templates that teachers can select as they select or construct writing activities for their students. The structure really does give young and emerging writers a tool to consistently create proficient paragraphs. The structure does have its limitations, however.

We have found that once mastered, students want to progress beyond the template. When the three sections that make up the CER have been practiced again and again, students want to take they're thinking further; they want to expand on the structure. Traditional paper templates do not allow for this type of expansion, and this becomes frustrating for kids who want to spread their wings.

With this in mind, we wanted to create a template that could flex and be modified as needed by student writers. Not only this, we wanted to be able to surround the writing experience with scaffolding and support. We also wanted to be sure that students would be able to collaborate and interact as they write, taking advantage of their natural inclination to be social. In short, we wanted to give them the essaypop experience. Take a look at how we created a flexible and expandable CER template for science writing.

The essaypop approach to CER to assist students with science writing

As you can see in the image below, we begin by setting up the CER in the traditional manner, but with some notable exceptions. First notice that each writing frame is color-coded. The research shows that students who associate the academic components of writing with color tend to learn these concepts quickly and retain them. Because of this, color coding has always been an essential part of the essaypop methodology.

Notice also that we supply scaffolded helping text and explanations of each writing component and place it directly adjacent to the writing area so that students never leave the writing area when they seek assistance. We've also provided synonyms for claim, evidence, and reasoning within the writing frames themselves as students will encounter different ways of naming these concepts as they move through different curricula, textbooks, and tests.

Essaypop also features detailed models of the paragraph elements shown in context with the other parts of the paragraph. Again, these models appear next to the writing area so students can refer to them conveniently. It should be noted that teachers can easily add their own explanations and models to this sidebar area.

This is what the frames look like once students have completed their writing. Keep in mind that as they write they have a formatting palette to create bold, italicized, underlined text, etc… Grammar and spell check software easily integrate into the writing frames.

As students compose, they're writing is converted into an MLA-formatted document in real-time and this can be printed or exported to any document type.

How do students expand the template?

Now here's where things get interesting. As we said earlier, the CER template, while perfect for learning the fundementals, has its limitations. Once students become proficient with this form, they'll need to expand the structure to accommodate more sophisticated thinking. They may want to add additional evidence or expand their reasoning based on that new evidence. They may wish to address a counterclaim or even reflect on their findings at the end of the essay.

With traditional CER templates, such expansion would not be possible, but with our flexible structures, modification is done easily. Students add components to a paragraph by accessing the drop-down menu where they can select the components they would like to add to the writing. It should be noted that students can also move and rearrange the writing frames at will by dragging and dropping them into new locations.

In the example below, you'll notice that the student has added a second piece of text evidence to support the claim. With this simple addition, the student is beginning to create a more sophisticated argument. Students we've interviewed have told us that having the ability to add components to their paragraph, one color-coded element at a time, makes them feel like they're in control of the elaboration and revision process.

In the next view, the student has added a section of reasoning to support the evidence and has even opted to add a paragraph break as she's found a natural break transition within her writing. Remember, this all started with the basic CER; the student has simply added to it incrementally, creating a more sophisticated piece of writing by degrees. And this is what we want from our students. We want them to learn organizational writing structures and repeat them until they come very naturally, then we want them to expand upon them gradually. After all, this is how learning happens, sequentially and in a step-by-step fashion.

Some essaypop users have taken this basic template and converted it into something to suit their teaching. This template was created by a high school science teacher in Los Angeles. We call it the modified CER and we think it's a wonderful variation that is perfect for high school students.

Modifying the structure to create simple lab reports

Modifying the CER template is also an excellent way to create observational writing, process papers, and simple lab reports. In the example below, you'll notice that the claim becomes the hypothesis, a series of evidence sections become the steps and observations made during the lab experiment, and the reasoning becomes the conclusion or final discussion based on the finished lab. We, of course, also feature more formal lab report templates in our collection.

The Importance of Accessible Support and Scaffolding

And as always, all of our templates are surrounded by support and scaffolding. In addition to the helping text, explanations, and models discussed earlier, every writing frame allows students to dial up academic sentence stems and phrases that allow them to confidently begin writing in a particular frame. This is ideal for emerging writers such as English language learners and SPED students, but frankly, all students can benefit from having access to an academic bank of terminology. And our studies have shown that when students use such phrases, they begin to internalize them and apply them when they are writing outside of the essaypop platform.

Pre-Writing

Pre-writing and brainstorming is an underutilized strategy. Our jam board-style tool is quite simple to use and allows students to brainstorm on their own, or better yet, the teacher can post guiding questions that students answer and then share with one another before getting into the actual essay writing.

The Importance of Interacting with Peers While Writing

As always, students who use the essaypop platform can gather along with the teacher in our collaborative and interactive Hive environment. Here, substantive commentary and feedback are shared, collaboration happens, and engagement is ensured. Students are quite naturally social, so setting them up with a social environment to discuss their academic writing is a win-win for learners and educators.

Making Assessment Easier for Teachers

Our proprietary assessment tool is much appreciated by our users nationwide as it allows teachers to filter assessment rubrics so that only pre-designated sections of the writing are assessed. Our tool does two things: it saves teachers time because they're only assessing selected portions of the writing and it collects actionable data in a convenient dashboard so teachers can see where students are making progress and where they are not.

Summary

It makes sense that emerging writers should understand that claim, evidence, and reasoning are the fundamental building blocks of all academic writing, and because of this, it makes sense that the CER template is used so widely by teachers at the elementary and middle school levels. It also tracks that science teachers seem to be particularly fond of the strategy. Our intention here is not to denigrate the CER structure; we feature it as a critical tool in our toolbox. But when students are ready to move beyond the simple structure, we want them to have that ability, and we don’t want them to have to wait for the teacher to introduce more sophisticated structures; we want them to be able to flex their thinking when they are ready. Expanding the CER template incrementally is a natural way for students to build sophistication and proficiency, and it’s, as you’ve seen, it’s a perfect way to approach science writing.

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