A Guide to Developing Literacy Practices in Science: Supporting Claims with Evidence by Using an Argumentation Card Sort: Fossils

Lawrence Hall of Science, University of California, Berkeley
Type Category
Instructional Materials
This resource, vetted by NSTA curators, is provided to teachers along with suggested modifications to make it more in line with the vision of the NGSS. While not considered to be "fully aligned," the resources and expert recommendations provide teachers with concrete examples and expert guidance using the EQuIP rubric to adapted existing resources. Read more here.



This activity outlines a strategy to understand and participate in scientific argumentation. Students evaluate evidence for two different claims related to a fossil tooth. They are asked to answer the question, “From what kind of animal did this fossil tooth come?” Students can choose between the claim that the fossil tooth is from a prehistoric lion or that is it from a prehistoric shark. Students are introduced to argumentation and practice those skills by examining evidence and then deciding whether it supports the claim, does not support the claim or might support the claim. Evidence cards contain information such as that the fossil tooth is 5 centimeters long, that it was found in sandstone in Utah where mountain lions now live, and that sharks have flat, sharp teeth. Students then discuss the evidence as a class as students explain their reasoning for categorizing a piece of evidence as “does support”, “does not support” or “might support”. This language of argumentation is specifically taught to students so that they can participate in the activity similar to the way scientists would. The claims are evaluated based on the evidence and students see whether they can come to a consensus on which is the best claim based on the evidence.

Intended Audience

Educator and learner
Educational Level
  • Grade 8
  • Grade 7
  • Grade 6
  • Middle School
Access Restrictions

Free access - The right to view and/or download material without financial, registration, or excessive advertising barriers.

Performance Expectations

MS-LS4-1 Analyze and interpret data for patterns in the fossil record that document the existence, diversity, extinction, and change of life forms throughout the history of life on Earth under the assumption that natural laws operate today as in the past.

Clarification Statement: Emphasis is on finding patterns of changes in the level of complexity of anatomical structures in organisms and the chronological order of fossil appearance in the rock layers.

Assessment Boundary: Assessment does not include the names of individual species or geological eras in the fossil record.

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this performance expectation.

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation
Students are asked to analyze and interpret data for patterns in the evidence about a fossil tooth and whether it came from a shark or mountain lion. Only one species is examined, so the idea of diversity and a change of life forms in the performance expectation is not addressed. Students may, however, connect the tooth to a prehistoric shark or mountain lion and identify the changes that happened from the older species to the one that is alive today. Then the idea of a change of life forms would be included in the activity. Since students are to construct a scientific claim backed by evidence, it is assumed that natural laws operate today as in the past. Three dimensional learning would take place with this activity as written. It would help if students had a recording sheet for each claim so that they could write down their initial ideas as well as any changes that occur during the class discussion.

Science and Engineering Practices

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this science and engineering practice.

Comments about Including the Science and Engineering Practice
Very detailed instructions are given for teachers on how to have students engage in argument from evidence in this activity. A page on the “Language for Argumentation” is included as well as examples of how to teach students to connect evidence and explain their responses. Integration of the Common Core Standards dealing with argumentation are discussed. The extended learning suggestion is to have students write a response using a claim, evidence and reasoning format to answer that question about the fossil tooth. This can be a summative assessment for this activity. The authors also included steps for generalizing the practice of argumentation to other phenomena so that teachers can use the same procedure in other areas of science.

Disciplinary Core Ideas

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this disciplinary core idea.

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
Part of LS4.A is addressed in this lesson. Students are examining the fossil record to determine the source of a tooth, but they are not looking at the placement of a collection of fossils in chronological order or looking at more than one fossil. So diversity is not included. If students connect the fossil tooth to living sharks or mountain lions, then they are seeing how life forms may have changed over time. This activity could be included in an Earth science unit, a life science unit on evolution or an integration of the two, but students should have an understanding of how sedimentary rocks form and of the principle of superposition before doing the activity. There is science background as a part of the activity description on these topics.

Crosscutting Concepts

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this crosscutting concept.

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept
In this activity students are looking at patterns in images and evidence statements of the source of a fossil tooth. It may not be evident that is what they are doing, so teachers should point out to students that they are finding patterns in the data as they see what evidence supports their claim. If they have sufficient evidence that it is a specific type of tooth then they have found the patterns in the data.

Resource Quality

  • Alignment to the Dimensions of the NGSS: This activity incorporates all three dimensions of the NGSS as well as being aligned to the Common Core of ELA/Literacy. Students learn how to make a scientific argument by examining a fossil and so address part of the Disciplinary Core Idea about Evidence of Common Ancestry and Diversity. The crosscutting concept of patterns is used and all three dimensions are interwoven throughout the lesson. More will be needed to be done with a collection of fossils to address the entire Disciplinary Core Idea.

  • Instructional Supports: The activity reflects what would happen in the practice of paleontology as a new fossil is discovered and the evidence is examined to determine its origin. The phenomenon of a fossil tooth is a motivation for students to explain their ideas and also ties in argumentation as well as constructing an explanation. Students express their ideas about the tooth both orally in class and in written form with a claim backed by evidence. A very detailed outline of how to implement the activity is included with sidebars on supporting English Language Learners, Science Background, Introducing Students to Argumentation, Connecting to the Standards and how to use this approach with other science topics.

  • Monitoring Student Progress: Suggestions are made about how to formatively assess students during the activity as well as a summative writing assessment after the activity. Teachers can do formative assessment with students as they argue their claim with evidence during the class and group discussions. The connections that students make between the pieces of evidence would be an important indication of their understanding of the argumentation process. The written response where students explain their thinking about the evidence of the source of the tooth could be a summative assessment for the lesson.

  • Quality of Technological Interactivity: N/A