Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Striking a Balance: Advancing English Language Learners' Linguistic Fluency through Learning Centers

Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Striking a Balance: Advancing English Language Learners' Linguistic Fluency through Learning Centers

Article excerpt

Before working at the university level, I taught high school biology to both English language learners (ELLs) and native English speakers. In our linguistically diverse culture, my challenge was teaching science content while also helping ELLs learn English. As a former English teacher, I found a way to do this through learning centers, or classroom areas designed for specific small-group activities.

This article shows how to use learning centers to accommodate ELLs and differentiate instruction for all learners. The activities included here incorporate content teaching strategies--covering topics such as DNA, the nature of matter, and the water cycle--and assessment techniques appropriate for both ELLs and native English speakers.


Learning centers ensure that all students interact with the content, regardless of English proficiency. In fact, many of the strategies that advance fluency for ELLs also help struggling native English-speaking students. Research shows that spending more time working with peers on academic tasks may help lower ELLs' inhibitions, engage them intellectually and emotionally, expose them to the target language, and enhance their academic performances (Freeman and Freeman 2003; Schecter and Cummins 2003; Bunch et al. 2005).

I was initially hesitant to use learning centers in the high school science classroom. I had only used them in elementary and middle school language arts classrooms, but I thought the nonthreatening nature might appeal to not only ELLs but any struggling learners. Of the 23 students in my biology classroom, 11 spoke Korean as their primary language, four spoke Spanish, three spoke German, and five were native English speakers. Fluency levels varied. Two of the five native English speakers were repeating biology, and two were transfer students who had never taken biology. The rest of the class had taken life science, which is the prerequisite class for biology, the previous year.


Learning centers are relatively easy to set up and can be contained at a small table or desk. To help create a theme, I typically place trifold presentation boards on each table, affixing instructions and displaying graphics for use with the center's activity. Learning centers facilitate interaction among peers, shifting the focal point from the teacher to students and putting students in charge of executing their own problem solving and consequent learning. But consider several factors--not all academic--before designing learning centers for your classroom.

First, review what students are expected to know in your course so your learning centers maintain high content standards. When I did this, I found that I had been using assessments that measured linguistic knowledge but not necessarily cognition. For example, an exam might require students to know photosynthesis terms in English. A newcomer who speaks limited English may understand the process of photosynthesis, having studied it in his or her first language or understanding what was taught in the classroom, but struggle with learning the English terminology.

The eventual goal is for students to communicate cognitive understanding in English, but until they have the experience to do so, it is important to determine whether they understand the content. Consider major learning objectives when making accommodations for ELLs. Too often, we develop elaborate activities and assessments that involve more than the target objective. With learning centers, teachers can work individually with students, who can proceed at their own paces. The variety of assessments allows students to learn content at levels best suited to their needs while still maintaining the lesson objective.

Though many ELLs are cognitively prepared for the content, some have not yet developed the linguistic skills to communicate their understanding. Federal guidelines require that teachers know ELLs' fluency levels so they can make appropriate accommodations. …

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