"Does a Spider Have Fur"? A Teacher's Journey in Building the Confidence to Blend the English Language Learning of ESL Students with Inquiry-Based Science

By Zeegers, Yvonne; McKinnon, Heather | Teaching Science, December 2012 | Go to article overview

"Does a Spider Have Fur"? A Teacher's Journey in Building the Confidence to Blend the English Language Learning of ESL Students with Inquiry-Based Science


Zeegers, Yvonne, McKinnon, Heather, Teaching Science


This paper describes one aspect of an ESL teacher's journey, in which her voluntary involvement in a series of science-based professional learning events inspired her to use language-based objectives to develop and teach an integrated unit of work with ESL students. Her willingness to modify her usual pedagogical practice and the inspiration she derived from her students' enthusiasm, engagement and progress in language acquisition, has markedly influenced the way this teacher now approaches teaching English as a second language. The findings of this case study suggest that learning activities which focus on pedagogical content knowledge (Shulman 1987), can provide ESL teachers with the confidence to plan and provide content-focused curriculum that is both motivating and challenging for ESL students.

INTRODUCTION

Stoller (2008) reports that ESL teachers often struggle to manage the complexities of curriculum planning that finds a balance between the selection and sequencing of the language requirements and needs of their students, and the language structures and functions that emerge from the subject matter (p.65). One of the Learning Areas that most readily draws attention to this dilemma for teachers who are planning content based instruction (CBI), involves the science curriculum.

This case study highlights that when a teacher is professionally supported (s)he can overcome concerns about planning and teaching content-based units of work in unfamiliar areas of the curriculum. The teacher in this study, chose to develop a science-based topic using a theme that was both relevant and practical as a means of supporting the learning of newly-arrived ESL (English as a Second Language) students who were normally in mainstream classrooms. Although the teacher used science as the vehicle, her foremost objectives were language focused. Such an approach fits within Bigelow, Dahlman and Ranney's Connections model (2006) which focuses on language function, language structure and content when planning.

  The model assumes that Language needs can be a
  starting point in a theme-based curriculum'. ... it
  also aims to encourage a sustained content focus in
  ESL instruction by always connecting the structures
  and function with content. (p. 49)

Heather teaches in a South Australian inner metropolitan private school which has co-located but separate senior and junior school campuses. Approximately 330 fee paying students from Reception to Year 6 attend the junior school. Heather teaches Specialist Maths 0.2, Special Education 0.2, and has a 0.5 role as the junior school's ESL teacher. Although there are twenty ESL students in the junior school, the majority of these students are deemed by the school to have a level of English that does not require additional ESL support. While we acknowledge that on site English language learning (Rushton 2008) offers classroom continuity for ESL students, in this case, the school determined that some of the newly-arrived fee paying students would benefit from short periods of intensive support in order to further develop their spoken and written English.

Currently Heather supports fourteen ESL students from Japan, China and Spain who are otherwise in mainstream classes. The students range from five to eleven years old (Reception to Year 6), and usually meet with Heather in groups of two or three so they are not intimidated by the lessons and can support each other in their learning. The students attend two fifty minute out-of-class ESL support lessons per week and Heather's role is to develop their comprehension and written skills as well as to build their confidence in speaking English. These lessons are independent of their mainstream classroom program.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Although Heather has considerable experience as an ESL teacher, she is a novice in teaching science, particularly when it comes to integrating ESL with science.

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