Using Storylines to Structure NGSS Units

How are NGSS units different?

ngss storylinesAn important difference you will see in truly aligned NGSS units is the use of storylines.  NGSS units are built on storylines framed around phenomena. Units built on storylines framed around phenomena.

Let’s break it down a little…


You probably have a pretty good idea about what the term “units” means in general, but did you know that an NGSS unit will really address several standards — all bundled and woven together? Yep. You really shouldn’t be teaching standards alone. They were designed to work together – to support each other – in developing a well-rounded understanding of the natural world.  They were designed to be connected. So when you are teaching your “unit” on Earth’s climate (an Earth and Space Science standard), you are also teaching about photosynthesis and respiration (a very Life Science standard) and potentially the conservation of energy (a Physical Science standard). Yes, it’s a lot, and it takes time to figure out how to weave it all together… that’s where storylines come in.  Before we dive into that term, let’s just reiterate: an NGSS unit includes 2-3 Performance Expectations woven together. (Now you COULD bundle more, f you’re feeling ambitious, but when you’re just starting out, I would focus on 2-3!)


A storyline is kind of what it sounds like… a story… that follows a line.  It’s a pathway to learning. It’s all of your content organized in a cohesive sequence that makes sense to students, that provides a clear connection from one topic to the next, and that all builds toward a single…


Ok, let’s back up a bit before I dive into phenomena! A storyline will carry your students from the beginning of the unit to the end, and their knowledge will build and build all along the way.  If you’ve been following a textbook approach to your curriculum, you may have been teaching your unit something like, “Ok, today we are learning about cell theory – textbook section 3.1…” And the next day you move on, “Today we are learning about the parts of the cell, section 3.2…” and again, you move on.  While your students’ knowledge of cells is (hopefully) growing, you haven’t linked one idea to the next.

In an NGSS storyline, you’re going to focus on connecting those ideas more explicitly.  Perhaps you’re tying the discovery of cells by Robert Hooke to the concept that cells have parts by initially focusing on the cell wall (one of those parts) as the observation that really hooked (har har har) Robert Hooke in!  While storylines are a little more complex than that, I hope you can see my point. The gist is that each piece of content (each idea or understanding) connects to and builds on the next piece of content… and that all of those pieces of content lead toward explaining or understanding a specific phenomena.  


Ok, phenomena.  NGSS units are framed on phenomena.  A phenomenon is a specific event or thing that happens in the natural world. It is something that occurs under specific conditions. It is observable.  It can be investigated, and in fact, students discover the content by investigating the phenomenon (and additional phenomenon) throughout your unit.

The water cycle is not a phenomenon.  Water disappearing from a puddle on a hot day is a phenomenon.  Mitosis is not a phenomenon. A cell replicating uncontrollably (aka cancer) is a phenomenon. The conservation of energy is not a phenomenon.  Charging a cell phone with a hand crank is a phenomenon.

Are you starting to get the idea? Phenomenon are specific events or things, and you build your unit on these.  They spark engagement, they get students wondering, and they drive every stage of learning forward.

NGSS units are built on a BIG phenomenon that ties to your core DCIs – this is called your anchor phenomenon. It’s something students cannot answer easily and must understand a number of scientific concepts in order to explain. In fact, they work through the majority of the unit, accumulating understanding IN ORDER TO explain this phenomenon!

But then storylines are driven forward through smaller investigative phenomenon — phenomena that focus on very specific ideas (typically, your learning objectives).  By exploring the investigative phenomena, students develop each smaller understanding necessary to explain the bigger anchor.

Why Should You Use Storylines?

The value in this approach is that students are pushed to see the connections between pieces of content — connections they otherwise would likely miss (despite the teacher understanding how one topic flows into the next).   Along those lines, this provides a rationale for the learning, and by utilizing phenomenon to drive instruction, students are more engaged with curiosities piqued.


Learn more here:

Building Student-Driven Science Storylines From Phenomena


ngss storylines