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STEM and ELT: 9 Strategies to Help ELs Learn Science (Part 1)

I am very excited about the topics for the next two months because I will be focusing on strategies that all teachers can use to help English learners (ELs) be successful contributors in the science classroom no matter their level of language proficiency. This blog will cover four of the nine strategies, and the remaining five strategies will be covered in my November blog post.

Science constitutes one of the best subjects for ELs to practice reading, writing, listening and speaking English if the science is taught as inquiry based and using hands-on activities, links to prior knowledge, and allows time allowed for student collaboration. All of these characteristics enhance and give depth to the EL experiences in science. Because science content and language can be learned simultaneously, science has a distinct place in the development of academic language.

In their chapter titled “Strategies for Teaching Science to English Learners” in the 2008 book Science for English Language Learners: K-12 Classroom Strategies (edited by Fathman and Crowther), Maatta, Dobb, and Ostlund explain the nine strategies to help ELs learn science:

  1. Connecting With Students
  2. Teacher Talk
  3. Student Talk
  4. Academic Vocabulary
  5. Reading Skills
  6. Writing Skills
  7. Collaborative Learning
  8. Scientific Language
  9. Process Skills of Inquiry

Although these strategies are listed and explained individually, for ELs to gain a better understanding of the science content and the English language, the strategies should be used in combination.

1. Connecting to Students

Before a student can be successful in class, they have to believe that the teacher cares for them. The brain is a social brain and thrives with positive interactions. When students are in an environment where they feel valued, respected, and relevant, the brain’s alert systems (amygdala and reticular activating systems) stay relaxed—and so does the student. We cannot ignore the power of the affective domain, and making positive connections with ELs.

Some suggestions for ways to connect to your ELs:

  • Create a “Welcome Sign” in their language
  • Label science equipment in the room in the languages of the students
  • Make an effort to find real-world examples of scientists and researchers who are either from that student’s country or who were former ELs themselves.

These things demonstrate to ELs that they are important enough that you took the time to make an effort.

2. Teacher Talk

Teacher talk is not so much about what you say as about how you say it. To use teacher talk correctly, you must know your ELs’ levels of language acquisition…each one of them! Here are some ways to adapt your speech and make your teacher talk more understandable for your ELs:

  • Enunciate your words
  • Use simpler sentences and sentence structure
  • Repeat and rephrase frequently

By doing these things, you provide ELs better chances of understanding you and the ability to follow along and participate. When you do them while including visual aids, graphic organizers, and realia, ELs’ comprehension grossly improves. When assigning tasks, it is best to do so step by step, ask students to summarize, and include comprehension checks. These actions will increase the level of understanding for ELs.

3. Student Talk

ELs must be provided as many opportunities as possible to practice new language and to hear that new language in context in as many modalities as possible: peer to peer, small group, large group, and whole group. Each of these modalities use different ways to express the information.

For example, when working with a peer or in a small group, an EL can point to help them communicate, they can use words or phrases like here, this one, and move this, all while pointing. But when presenting in front of class, they must find the proper words in place of pointing, and a different level of language is required. This is important because this is how ELs learn the new language, including the academic language…in context!

According to AFT, another great strategy for student talk is to allow ELs to use their primary language, and you don’t need to know the language for this to occur. Primary language support is acceptable for ELs at various levels of language proficiency development, especially those who are at the preproduction and early production stages. According to Hakuta and August, primary language support facilitates cognitive and academic development. The short explanation is that students must talk to learn the language and listen to learn how to use the language.

4. Academic Vocabulary

Building academic vocabulary is the difference between basic everyday talk and cognitive talk. Quite often, teachers think that when they hear an EL speaking very well with their friends, the EL can therefore be successful in the content classroom. This is not true. There is a huge difference between what is called BICS and CALP talk, as defined by Professor Jim Cummins. BICS stands for Basic Interpersonal Communication (everyday talk) and CALP stands for cognitive academic language proficiency (academic talk).

ELs need to learn academic talk to be successful in content classes, but it is no easy task. Academic talk requires building a strong vocabulary in the content area. There are many views on how to best teach vocabulary, but I agree with the view of linguist Stephen Krashen, who stated, more or less, that vocabulary should be taught after the student has been presented with the meaning of the word in a variety of modalities, not first due to lack of schema in the new language or due to lack of education in their primary language.

This opinion is also shared by one of the creators of STMath, Nigel Nisbet, whom I had the honor of interviewing this summer. Mr. Nisbet explained to me the concept behind STMath, a math program that builds conceptual understanding without the barriers of language. The program is built on the brain science of how we learn. The basis is that we learn by doing, thus activating the perception-action cycle. He explained that our brain makes sense of the world around us by creating and testing hypotheses about the way the world works. When presented with new situations, our brain makes predictions based on past experiences, takes action based on those hypotheses, perceives the results, and adjusts its hypotheses.

So, consider how this impacts learning vocabulary using manipulatives and visuals prior to definitions. Game-changer! Why? Because the perception-action cycle is also critical to learning with visual and symbolic representations of actions (think equations, chemistry, physics, etc.). Research shows that using mental pictures or motions to simulate new vocabulary words engages the perception-action cycle and improves student learning. We learn best when we interact with the world. So, put away the dictionary and find other ways to introduce vocabulary—visuals, videos, and demonstrations to name a few!

We cannot continue to deprive ELs the opportunities to engage in STEM content classes because of language. We must continually discover ways to teach the content and the language. We need to focus on what they can do, and use that to expand their knowledge!

How do you teach vocabulary to your ELs?

About the author

Darlyne de Haan

Dr. Darlyne de Haan, a former forensic scientist and chemist with more than 20 years of experience in STEM, is a recipient and participant of the coveted Fulbright Administrator Program for Fulbright Leaders for Global Schools, a program sponsored by the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. She is a strong advocate for changing the face of STEM to reflect the population and is fluent in English and advanced in Spanish.

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