Skip to main content
Log in

Towards a Social Semiotic Interpretation of the Chemistry Triangle: Student Exploration of Changes of State in an Australian Secondary Science Classroom

  • Published:
International Journal of Science and Mathematics Education Aims and scope Submit manuscript


Representations constitute an important part of chemistry knowledge. This paper revisits the notion of the term, symbolic, in the chemistry triangle proposed by Johnstone using the theoretical lens of social semiotics. In doing so, this paper proposes a framework of chemistry learning that highlights representational re-description and coordination as key mechanisms for facilitating connections among the three domains of knowledge: chemical phenomenon (perceptual-experiential level), macroscopic (theoretical-descriptive level) and submicroscopic (theoretical-explanatory level). This paper illustrates how this framework can be used to explore student meaning making of changes of state by examining students’ interactions with the phenomena of melting and boiling and with the multiple representations of the phases of matter introduced in the classroom. The findings revealed the opportunities and challenges which emerged from student meaning making with multiple representations in the process of developing an understanding of the submicroscopic view of phase change. It also highlighted the support needed to facilitate such meaning making through representational re-description and coordination in order for students to develop a deep understanding of the logical connections between the particular model and the macroscopic patterns of the observed phenomena.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in via an institution to check access.

Access this article

Price excludes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.

Instant access to the full article PDF.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2

Similar content being viewed by others


  • Adadan, E., Trundle, K. C., & Irving, K. E. (2010). Exploring grade 11 students' conceptual pathways of the particulate nature of matter in the context of multirepresentational instruction. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 47(8), 1004–1035.

    Google Scholar 

  • Ainsworth, S. (2006). DeFT: A conceptual framework for considering learning with multiple representations. Learning and Instruction, 16(3), 183–198.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Airey, J., & Linder, C. (2009). A disciplinary discourse perspective on university science learning: Achieving fluency in a critical constellation of modes. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 46(1), 27–49.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Ayas, A., Özmen, H., & Çalik, M. (2010). Students’ conceptions of the particulate nature of matter at secondary and tertiary level. International Journal of Science and Mathematics Education, 8(1), 165–184.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Bezemer, J., & Kress, G. (2008). Writing in multimodal texts: A social semiotic account of designs for learning. Written Communication, 25(2), 166–195.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Braun, V., & Clarke, V. (2013). Successful qualitative research: A practical guide for beginners. Sage.

  • Clarke, D. J. (1997). Chapter 7: Studying the classroom negotiation of meaning: Complementary accounts methodology. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education. Monograph, 9, 98–111. 

  • Devetak, I., & Glažar, S. A. (2014). Learning with understanding in the chemistry classroom. Springer.

  • diSessa, A. (2004). Metarepresentation: Naive competence and targets for instruction. Cognition and Instruction, 22(3), 293–331.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Driver, R., & Project. (1994). Making sense of secondary science: research into children's ideas. Routledge.

  • Erickson, G., & Tiberghien, A. (1985). Heat and temperature. In R. Driver, E. Guesne, & A. Tiberghien (Eds.), Children’s ideas in science (pp. 52–66). Open University Press.

  • Gabel, D. L. (1993). Use of the particle nature of matter in developing conceptual understanding. Journal of Chemical Education, 70(3),193–194.

  • Gabel, D. (1998). The complexity of chemistry and implications for teaching. In B. J. Frasers & K. G. Tobin (Eds.), International handbook of science education (pp. 233–248). Kluwer Academic.

  • Gilbert, J. K., & Treagust, D. (2009). Multiple representations in chemical education (Vol. 4). Springer.

  • Harrison, A. G., & Treagust, D. F. (2002). The particulate nature of matter: Challenges in understanding the submicroscopic world. In J. K. Gilbert, O. D. Jong, R. Justi, D. F. Treagust, & J. H. V. Driel (Eds.), Chemical education: Towards research-based practice (Vol. 17, pp. 189–212). Kluwer Academic Publishers.

  • Johnson, P. (1998). Progression in children’s understanding of ‘basic’ particle theory: A longitudinal study. International Journal of Science Education, 20(4), 393–412.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Johnstone, A. H. (1982). Macro- and microchemistry. School Science Review, 64, 377–379.

    Google Scholar 

  • Johnstone, A. H. (2000). Teaching of chemistry – Logical or psychological? Chemistry Education Research and Practice, 1, 9–15.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Kozma, R. (2003). The material features of multiple representations and their cognitive and social affordances for science understanding. Learning and Instruction, 13(2), 205–226.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Kozma, R., Chin, E., Russell, J., & Marx, N. (2000). The roles of representations and tools in the chemistry laboratory and their implications for chemistry learning. The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 9(2), 105–143.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Lehrer, R., & Schauble, L. (2013). Representational re-description as a catalyst of conceptual change. In B. M. Brizuela & B. E. Gravel (Eds.), “Show me what you know”: Exploring student representations across STEM disciplines (pp. 244–249). Teachers College Press.

  • Lemke, J. L. (1998). Teaching all the languages of science: Words, symbols, images, and actions. Paper presented at the Conference on science education in Barcelona. Retrieved September 17, 2020, from

  • Lemke, J. L. (2003). Mathematics in the middle: Measure, picture, gesture, sign, and word. In M. Anderson (Ed.), Educational perspectives on mathematics as semiosis: From thinking to interpreting to knowing (pp. 215–234). Legas.

  • Mahaffy, P. (2006). Moving chemistry education into 3D: A tetrahedral metaphor for understanding chemistry. Union Carbide Award for Chemical Education. Journal of Chemical Education, 83(1), 49–55.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Manz, E., Lehrer, R., & Schauble, L. (2020). Rethinking the classroom science investigation. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 57(7), 1148–1174.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Martin, J., Xu, L., & Seah, L. H. (2021). Discourse analysis and multimodal meaning making in a science Classroom: Meta-methodological insights from three theoretical perspectives. Research in Science Education, 51(1), 187–207.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Nakhleh, M. B., Samarapungavan, A., & Saglam, Y. (2005). Middle school students’ beliefs about matter. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 42(5), 581–612.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • National Research Council. (2012). A framework for K-12 science education: Practices, crosscutting concepts, and core ideas. Board on Science Education, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. The National Academies Press.

  • Novick, S., & Nussbaum, J. (1978). Junior high school pupils’ understanding of the particulate nature of matter: An interview study. Science Education, 62(3), 273–281.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Peirce, C. S. (1998). The essential Peirce: Selected philosophical writings (Vol. 2). Indiana University Press.

  • Pozo, J. I., & Crespo, M. A. G. (2005). The embodied nature of implicit theories: The consistency of ideas about the nature of matter. Cognition and Instruction, 23(3), 351–387.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Prain, V., & Tytler, R. (2012). Learning through constructing representations in science: A framework of representational construction affordances. International Journal of Science Education, 34(17), 2751–2773.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Reid, N. (2021). The Johnstone triangle: The Key to understanding chemistry. Royal Society of Chemistry.

  • Stavy, R. (1988). Children’s conception of gas. International Journal of Science Education, 10(5), 553–560.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Taber, K. S. (2013). Revisiting the chemistry triplet: Drawing upon the nature of chemical knowledge and the psychology of learning to inform chemistry education. Chemistry Education Research and Practice, 14(2), 156–168.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Talanquer, V. (2009). On cognitive constraints and learning progressions: The case of “structure of matter”. International Journal of Science Education, 31(15), 2123–2136.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Talanquer, V. (2011). Macro, submicro, and symbolic: The many faces of the chemistry “triplet”. International Journal of Science Education, 33(2),179–195.

  • Tang, K. S. (2016). The interplay of representations and patterns of classroom discourse in science teaching sequences. International Journal of Science Education, 38(13), 2069–2095.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Treagust, D., Chittleborough, G., & Mamiala, T. (2003). The role of submicroscopic and symbolic representations in chemical explanations. International Journal of Science Education, 25(11), 1353–1368.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Tsaparlis, G., & Sevian, H. (2013). Concepts of matter in science education (Vol. 19). Springer.

  • Tytler, R., & Prain, V. (2010). A framework for re-thinking learning in science from recent cognitive science perspectives. International Journal of Science Education, 32(15), 2055–2078.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Wells, G., & Arauz, R. M. (2006). Dialogue in the classroom. The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 15(3), 379–428.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Wu, H. K. (2003). Linking the microscopic view of chemistry to real-life experiences: Intertextuality in a high-school science classroom. Science Education, 87(6), 868–891.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Yore, L. D., & Treagust, D. F. (2006). Current realities and future possibilities: Language and science literacy - empowering research and informing instruction. International Journal of Science Education, 28(2-3), 291–314.

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


The research was funded by the Australian Research Council and directed by the late Professor David Clarke. The author would like to dedicate this paper in honour of Professor Clarke who supervized her doctoral study as part of this ARC-funded project.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Lihua Xu.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Xu, L. Towards a Social Semiotic Interpretation of the Chemistry Triangle: Student Exploration of Changes of State in an Australian Secondary Science Classroom. Int J of Sci and Math Educ 20, 705–726 (2022).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: