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Catch My Drift Capability: Interpret representations NoS achievement aims: Communicating in science Contextual strands: Living world Contextual strands: Planet Earth and beyond Level : 4,5

Author: Sarah Wilcox. Catch my drift. Oceans: A Source of Life, Connected, Level 4, 2012, pages 7–13

This resource illustrates how a diagram in a Connected article can provide opportunities for students to strengthen their capability to make sense of representations in the context of science.

Curriculum Aims and AOs

NZC LINKS: The Nature of Science strand


Achievement objectives relevant to this resource

Communicating in science

Develop knowledge of the vocabulary, numeric and symbol systems, and conventions of science and use this knowledge to communicate about their own and other’s ideas.


Begin to use a range of scientific symbols, conventions, and vocabulary.

Engage with a range of science texts and begin to question the purposes for which these texts are constructed.


Use a wider range of science vocabulary, symbols, and conventions.

Apply their understandings of science to evaluate both popular and scientific texts (including visual and numerical literacy).

NZC LINKS: Living World, Planet Earth and Beyond


Achievement objectives relevant to this resource


Understand how living things interact with each other and with the non-living environment.


Explain how living things are suited to their particular habitat and how they respond to environmental changes, both natural and human-induced.


Investigate the interdependence of living things (including humans) in an ecosystem.

Interacting systems

Investigate and understand that the geosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere and biosphere are connected via a complex web of processes.

The context of the carbon cycle diagram is beyond what the curriculum expects at Levels 4 and 5, but unpacking the diagram supports students to begin developing some conceptual understanding of this concept.

Learning focus

Students investigate features of scientific diagrams.

Learning activity

Catch My Drift explores the importance in an ecosystem of plants, including microscopic phytoplankton. The final section of the article is about phytoplankton and the carbon cycle.

The article includes a diagram of the carbon cycle (pages 12-13) that models the science idea that carbon atoms move from place to place but are never destroyed, and the linked set of processes that transform carbon from one set of compounds to other types. These underlying science ideas will be challenging for many Level 4 and Level 5 students.

Adapting the resource

  1. Read and discuss the article. This is an important step because the text provides a lot of background information that supports the diagram. Students will need to refer to this to make sense of the diagram.
  2. Draw attention to the information in the box at the bottom of page 12 that explains what the two main elements of the diagram represent. Ask:


Indicative answer

Why is it important to know this?

What is meant by "carbon stores"? Places where carbon is found, usually combined with other elements to form different substances (e.g., coal, carbon dioxide).

"Carbon stores" is typical of highly condensed scientific language. Concepts, processes and relationships can all be captured in very brief phrases like this.

Science knowledge is an important resource for interpreting scientific representations.

What is meant by "processes"? The means by which the carbon gets moved from one place to another and/or by which it changes from one substance to another. See above.
  1. Direct students’ attention to the diagram and ask:
    • Is there anywhere on earth that carbon can’t be found? How do you know? [The diagram shows carbon stores in all of earth’s spheres: in the atmosphere; in rocks and soil; in the sea; in living things.]
  2. If students are looking closely and literally they may argue that fresh water is not depicted – in that case, challenge them to find places where the diagram infers that non-marine parts of the water cycle are also involved in carbon cycling. [Example: run-off from soil will be fresh water.]
    • What does the direction of the arrows show? [Change of place, e.g., ocean surface to atmosphere; or change of form, e.g., dead matter to coal, oil and gas/fossil fuels.]
    • What do the colours of the arrows signify? [Green: processes to do with living things; dark brown: processes to do with rock formation; light brown: processes to do with burning of carbon fuels; blue: processes to do with movement between the atmosphere and sea.]
    • How do the pictures help you interpret the diagram?
    • What purpose do you think the author of the diagram had in mind when constructing this diagram?

What’s important here?

Scientists represent their ideas in a variety of ways, including in complex diagrams and models. In order to interpret what a representation is showing, we need to understand the conventions that are used in that representation. We also need to be aware that a representation, including a diagram, is designed to highlight a particular aspect, and in doing that other information is omitted or not focussed on.

Understanding and using the literacy practices of science supports students to think in new ways and supports students to become scientifically literate, i.e., to participate as critical, informed, and responsible citizens in a society in which science plays a significant role. (This is the purpose of science in NZC.)

What are we looking for?

Can students articulate what the different elements of the diagram are representing?

Are they able to recognise the purpose for which a diagram is designed?

Can they successfully "read" a diagram?

Opportunities to learn at different curriculum levels

For suggestions about adapting tasks in ways that allow students to show progress in gathering and interpreting data see  Progressions .

Exploring further

The same edition of Connected has a complex food web diagram on pages 16-17. The arrows have a different meaning here, as do the colours. This diagram could be compared and contrasted with the carbon cycle diagram to highlight the need to pay attention to how the diagram communicates ideas, and what the different components actually signify.

The following resources from Connected, the Assessment Resource Banks (ARBs), and the Making Better Sense series could also be adapted to explore similar ideas relating to complex diagrams.

Food web:

Water cycle:

The solar system:

Circuit diagrams provide a simpler example where particular accepted conventions are used:

  • Simple circuit diagram (The Boat Race, Connected 3, 1998, page 20)
  • Drawing circuit diagrams  (Level 4 ARBs - includes construction of a diagram)
  • Making Better Sense of the Physical World (contains a number of circuit diagrams)

Other resources for this capability

Watch Me! (L1) Ready to Read series 2009, Guided Reading level: yellow

Seeds (L1 & 2) Connected 1, 1999

Light and Colour: Our Vision of the World (L1 & 2) Building Science Concepts, Booklet 10

Standing Up: Skeletons and Frameworks (L1 & 2) Building Science Concepts, Booklet 51

An Interview with a Glass of Water (L3 & 4) Connected 2, 2002

Ferns (L3 & 4) Connected 3, 2002

Why Does It Always Rain on Me? (L3 & 4) Connected, Level 3, 2012

Spring is a Season: How Living Things Respond to Seasonal Changes (L3 & 4) Building Science Concepts, Booklet 44

The Air around Us: Exploring the Substance We Live in (L4) Building Science Concepts, Booklet 30

Bioaccumulation interactive (L5) Science Learning Hub

The elements: element analyser interactive (L5) Digistore on TKI

Garden Bird Survey: Participants’ Stories (L5) Landcare Research webpage

The Modified Mercalli Intensity Scale (L5) GNS Science webpage

Key words

Connected, cycle diagrams