Academic journal article Teaching Science

Supporting English as an Additional Language Students in Science: Integrating Content and Language

Academic journal article Teaching Science

Supporting English as an Additional Language Students in Science: Integrating Content and Language

Article excerpt

In this article, we report on a teacher-researcher collaboration that emerged from a large study on literacy strategies for diverse classrooms. Using the example of one Year 9 class of ten English as an Additional Language (EAL) students, we trialled language-focussed materials on the topic of Ecosystems as an alternative or adjunct to the mainstream science textbook. We argue that many students' vocabulary and comprehension are too limited to access mainstream textbooks, or follow teacher-centred explanations. The project presented here required students to work through language-focussed content activities at their own pace to support their effective participation in interactive classroom activities. Findings showed a strong degree of student approval of the materials, but also some unexpected anomalies. The pedagogical implications of using this approach, along with its benefits and challenges are identified.

INTRODUCTION

Teachers in mainstream Australian classrooms encounter increasing numbers of English as an Additional Language (EAL) students, some of whom have limited literacy, often as a result of interrupted schooling. This study addresses the problematic assumption that high school students still learning English can access complex scientific topics, like density or the nervous system, through mainstream textbooks and pedagogy. Time-constraints, institutional constraints, along with gaps in teacher education and limited targeted professional development, mean that many teachers are struggling to deal with the challenges of meeting the needs of these students (Miller, 2009), particularly within mixed-level classes. Such students need high levels of teacher scaffolding in order to produce meaningful work (Gibbons, 2009). Without this, students can be left bewildered by unfamiliar content and incomprehensible texts, and have limited opportunities to utilise skills and knowledge they do have or to practise new language structures. The challenges in teaching these students are significant, particularly given the range of reading ages in a single classroom and the need for differentiation (Miller, Keary & Windle, in press). One of the authors of this article, a full-time secondary school teacher, faces these challenges daily. We raise the question of the kind of support teachers need to engage EAL students struggling with fundamental literacy in science, and we report on the trial of scaffolded materials for one topic in a Year 9 class. The materials are not intended to replace transformative pedagogy (Cummins, 2000) in science, including experiments, modelling, demonstrations, visuals and hands-on activities. They are to reinforce the language students need to engage with these activities. Individual cognitive practice should not replace rich classroom interactive practice. Rather, we propose that scaffolded materials be provided to enable all students to fully participate.

For low-literacy EAL students to be meaningfully included in classroom learning, comprehensible input is vital (Krashen, 1982). Without it, an insufficient grasp of content and language restricts participation and therefore learning. Attention to the language aspects of content is therefore crucial to the successful inclusion of EAL students struggling with literacy, and we would argue that meaningful classroom interaction cannot occur without it. Research into teacher-student interaction has revealed the prevalence of the Initiation-Response-Evaluation (IRE) model (Barnes, 1992; Cazden, 1988; Mehan, 1979) or triadic dialogue (Lemke, 1990). This model positions the teacher as the expert delivering content and eliciting student responses, often orally, which are then judged as correct or incorrect. The pace of the lesson is set by the teacher. It is a model which generally features teacher mediation and control and significant amounts of teacher-talk. It does not provide students with the autonomy to move through content at their own pace or apply new concepts and language independently, and it does not encourage or sustain interaction (Hall and Walsh, 2002). …

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