Supporting English Language Learners': Reading in the Science Classroom

By Corder, Greg | Science Scope, September 2007 | Go to article overview

Supporting English Language Learners': Reading in the Science Classroom


Corder, Greg, Science Scope


Several organizations in the scientific community have communicated a need for individuals to develop scientific literacy (AAAS 1993; National Academy of Sciences 1996; NSTA 2005). The skill to read and understand science-oriented information is an important means by which students may enhance their ability to acquire scientific literacy.

It might seem obvious that students with limited reading skills also have limited educational opportunities. Students acquiring English as their second, non-native language--presently referred to as English Language Learners (ELLs)--face this obstacle. Fortunately, a body of research has emerged that provides specific techniques for supporting and developing their reading ability. These findings can be readily applied to the science classroom.

English Language Learners

Students in the English Language Learner population are formally labeled as Limited English Proficient (LEP) by the federal government and most states. Although sharing a low proficiency skill of the English language, this rapidly growing segment of students is extremely diverse. They represent "every echelon of society from wealth, privilege, and education to poverty and illiteracy; they speak varying degrees of English" (Roseberry-McKibbin 2002, p. 13). Moreover, many immigrants, refugees, and migrants enter the United States with "limited, intermittent, or interrupted schooling" (Rivera and Vincent 1997, p. 347). Some English Language Learners are actually American-born (Echevarria, Vogt, and Short 2004); however others "enter the United States from many places. In the different countries of origin, curricular sequences, content objectives, and instructional methodologies may differ dramatically from American practices" (McKeon 1994, p. 46). An obvious language deficit challenges English Language Learners' academic success, while cultural and socioeconomic differences compound their education struggle.

The population of students classified as English Language Learners in American schools has and continues to experience major growth. Between the 1992/93 and 2002/03 school years, the total population of American students grew approximately 11%, while the population of identified LEP students grew approximately 85% (NCELA 2004). Moreover, Ruiz-de-Velasco and Fix reported that immigrant growth has been concentrated in urban areas, thus causing more extreme growth for those school systems (2000). Coupling their unique education needs with their population's growth makes the task of teaching English Language Learners seem daunting.

Regardless of the challenge, three important reasons compel U.S. public schools to provide ELL students with differentiated instruction. First, federal legislation addresses the education of identified LEP students. Title II of the Educational Amendments Act of 1974, the Equal Educational Opportunity Act, required that all schools use instructional programs to overcome LEP language barriers. A 1974 Congressional amendment to the Bilingual Education Act of 1968 clarified programs' intent and design (Stewner-Manzanares 1988). More recently, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (U.S. Department of Education 2001), the reauthorization of Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, mandates identification and testing of LEP students' academic performance and progress. Second, the U.S. Supreme Court has clarified schools' responsibility in teaching ELLs. According to the Court, "non-English-speaking children have a right to special help" (Lau v. Nichols, as cited in Porter 2000, p. 404). Therefore, schools must pursue and implement a program to meet the needs of English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) students by using sound educational theory as recognized by experts in the field (Castaneda v. Pickard, as cited in Porter 2000). Finally, most educators acknowledge an ethical obligation to afford ELLs the same educational opportunities as their English-speaking peers. …

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