Developing scientific arguments and discussions

Argumentation is an explicit component of the Science Inquiry Skills at Year 9 and 10 (VCSIS140).

The ability for students to follow and understand arguments of a scientific nature is fundamental to scientific literacy as well as being reflective of how progress in science itself is often achieved.

Argumentation requires students to be able to understand the criteria used to evaluate evidence and how evidence is put together to construct an explanation (Simon, Erduran & Osborne, 2006). However, for most students, an ability to put together an argument does not come naturally but instead is developed through explicit teaching and practice (Kuhn, 1991).

Students’ simple arguments can be improved with explicit instruction, task structuring and modelling, all of which are HITS strategies. The following activities provide rich environments for explicit instruction to develop students’ ability for argumentation:

  • debates (e.g. “Is it ethical to clone animals?” [VCSSU119])
  • role-plays (e.g. Radioactive decay [VCSSU122])
  • structured controversies (e.g. “Coal-fired power stations have less environmental impact than hydroelectric stations” [VCSSU128]).

Through these activities, students will develop their ability to present, justify and defend knowledge claims (Yore, 2003, p. 705).

The following four strategies can be implemented within these activities to support students from Years 7 to 10 to develop their argumentation skills:

  • effective questioning
  • using sentence stems
  • including specific evidence/data
  • using argument patterns.

Effective questioning

One of the requirements of argumentation in Science is to use evidence to justify a position. Effective questioning (HITS Strategy 7) by the teacher can be used to deepen and expand student thinking to help them identify evidence to support their claims.

The following is an example of arguing prompts developed by Simon, Erduran and Osborne (2006):

  • Why do you think that?
  • Can you think of another argument for your view?
  • Can you think of an argument against your view?
  • How do you know?

Using sentence stems

As well as being able to argue orally, students are required to write arguments in Science. Most commonly, this relates to societal, medical or environmental issues related to scientific advances and practices (Polias, 2016).

A simple strategy to support students to state and develop their argument in writing is to use sentence stems.

Stems that support the writing process can also be helpful in supporting students to start a writing piece. The following stems are suggested by Simon, Erduran and Osborne (2006):

  • My argument is …
  • My reasons are that ....
  • I would convince someone who does not believe me by …

Sentence stems can also be used to support classroom discussion and debate, providing students with ways to enter into a conversation.

Including appropriate evidence/data

Students need assistance in selecting and including appropriate data and evidence to support an argument. The following questions can be used to help students identify and select appropriate data and evidence:

  • Where are the data/evidence from?
  • Who collected the data/evidence?
  • Is the source of that data/evidence reliable?
  • Do you have more than one source of data/evidence? These may have been data that was collected and may either support or refute a scientific idea.

Scaffolding argument structure

Explicitly teaching and scaffolding the structure of arguments will support students to both deconstruct and construct their own arguments in Science. As Humphrey, Love and Droga (2011, pp.12-15) outline, structures of arguments typically follow this pattern:

  • Thesis
    • Position statement
    • Preview the arguments to come
    • Supporting arguments
      • Supporting argument 1
        • Point – identified in topic sentence
        • Elaboration – supporting evidence, example or illustration
      • Supporting argument 2
        • Point – identified in topic sentence
        • Elaboration – supporting evidence, example or illustration
      • Supporting argument 3
        • Point – identified in topic sentence
        • Elaboration – supporting evidence, example or illustration
      • Reinforcement of thesis - ‘To sum up...’

    Language resources for argument

    Students should understand the typical language features used in arguments. Below is a checklist of some of the common language features students will come across:

    • present tense for giving views and the present situation
    • using generalised, abstract or technical participants (subjects) and extended noun groups. For example, ‘Plastic bags and plastic bottles...’; ‘The expansion of the universe...’
    • using a range of verb types. For example, ‘has contributed to...’; ‘are available to increase...’; ‘are returning...’; ‘should not be prohibited...’; ‘can be seen...’
    • connectives to show logical cause and effect. For example, ‘As an outcome of...’ ‘As a result of...’ ‘because...’ ‘consequently...’
    • using nominalisations, scientific terminology, supporting figures. For example, ‘The global reaction to the disaster was...’ instead of ‘The world reacted ...’
    • using supporting facts and quotes by experts. For example, ‘Overall, temperature increased by 0.5°C according to reports in...’
    • evaluative vocabulary and interpersonal metaphors to express opinion. For example,. ‘It is clear that..’; ‘In light of such convincing evidence...’

    (see Derewianka & Jones, 2016, pp.237-252)


    Derewianka, B., & Jones, P. (2016). Teaching language in context. Oxford University Press. 198 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10016.

    Humphrey, S., Love, K., & Droga, L. (2011). Working grammar: An introduction for secondary English teachers. Pearson Australia.

    Kuhn, D. (1991). The skills of argument. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Simon, S., Erduran, S., & Osborne, J. (2006). Learning to teach argumentation: Research and development in the science classroom. International journal of science education, 28(2-3), 235-260.