Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Using All Available Tools: Effective Strategies to Teach English Language Learners in the Science Classroom

Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Using All Available Tools: Effective Strategies to Teach English Language Learners in the Science Classroom

Article excerpt


Schools in the United States are faced with an increasingly diverse student population and a dramatic increase in the number of English language learners (ELLs) in all grades. Currently, 12% of students in U.S. schools speak a language other than English, and by 2015 that population is expected to encompass more than 50% of the preK-12 population (Gray and Fleischman 2005). Science education and the improvement of scores for ethnically and linguistically diverse students have come under close scrutiny in the last few years. As such diverse populations grow in this era of high-stakes testing and accountability, there is increased pressure to make science accessible to all.

Atwater defines multicultural science education as "a field of inquiry with constructs, methodologies, and processes aimed at providing equitable opportunities for all students to learn quality science" (1993, p. 48). To help promote multicultural science education, in this article we present a survey of tools and methods to enhance science learning for culturally diverse students whose native language is not English.

Organizing the curriculum

An organized, well-designed curriculum with clearly defined goals is key for successful learning. In science teaching, a curriculum that progresses from teacher-explicit to student-exploratory is most effective for nontraditional students. They will benefit, as all students will, from well-planned activities that relate directly to science concepts being taught (Rice, Pappamihiel, and Lake 2004). To successfully interpret and accomplish the tasks expected of them, however, these students will require extensive guidance (Buck 2000). Instructions should be clear and concise, concepts clearly illustrated, prompts repeated often, and activities modeled in a step-by-step manner. Establishing instructional routines, explaining explicit rules for behavior, and creating a predictable and accepting environment will also make it easier for learners to focus on understanding content rather than on procedures or forms of social engagement (Watson and Houtz 2002).

While organization is critical to making science concepts understandable for all learners, it is particularly important for those from diverse backgrounds. The "Planning Pyramid" framework (Schumm, Vaughn, and Leavell 1994)--based on the principle that all students can learn although not necessarily at the same pace--is a useful way to organize and prioritize scientific concepts, particularly for students with disparate learning needs. Furthermore, students' diverse cultural, academic, and linguistic backgrounds can be taken into account during the lesson planning stages. The base of the pyramid contains essential information that all students will learn, the middle contains information most students will learn, and the apex contains supplemental information that augments basic concepts, which only some students will learn.

For an Earth science unit about volcanoes, for example, all students are expected to learn relevant vocabulary and how volcanoes form. Most students will also learn how the released steam represents a type of geothermal energy, but only some students will be interested or motivated to seek out additional information, such as how Pompeii was destroyed by a volcano or how geologists predict future eruptions. Care should be taken to ensure that all students have equal access to all levels of the pyramid, and that all levels are taught in an equally stimulating manner, although the methods of presentation may vary according to students' needs.

Presenting the information in varied ways will provide greater opportunities for diverse learners to succeed. While multiple means of representation (e.g., visual aids, models, demonstrations) help make science content accessible to all students, in science lessons these means are often the only source of information for learners with limited English backgrounds (Rice, Pappamihiel, and Lake 2004). …

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