ELLs: Children Left Behind in Science Class

By Brown, Clara Lee; Bentley, Michael | Academic Exchange Quarterly, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

ELLs: Children Left Behind in Science Class


Brown, Clara Lee, Bentley, Michael, Academic Exchange Quarterly


Abstract

This article presents results of a year-long study conducted in two rural elementary science classes for English Language Learners (ELLs) in a southeastern state. The researchers found that mainstream teachers did not accommodate ELLs and that hands-on, inquiry learning was not provided in science classes. It was also noted that science education has been pushed aside in the classrooms due to No Child Left Behind state-mandated testing.

Introduction

English language learners (ELLs) represent 9.3 percent of the K-12 public school population in the United States (Solano-Flores & Trumbull, 2003). While the number of ELLs is considered likely to increase, also noted by educators is an academic performance disparity between ELLs and fully English proficient students (FEPs). For instance, there is not only a substantial achievement gap between FEPs and ELLs in science, but minority students also are less likely to be represented in science-related majors in higher education (August & Hakuta, 1997). However, science has been recognized as a critical subject for academic achievement and for the future careers of today's students (Tortes & Zeidler, 2001). If ELLs are behind FEPs in a subject that can lead to success in life, they not only lose out in school but in life as well. Thus, it is imperative to investigate how the achievement gap in science learning between FEPs and ELLs might be reduced. This study is part of a larger year-long study conducted in third grade science classes to investigate how reading and writing in science class enhance ELLs' literacy skills. However, this report focuses upon ancillary findings related to the way teachers deal with ELLs in the science classroom that emerged from classroom observations.

Unique Needs of ELLs in Academic Settings

The most salient characteristics of ELLs is that they are in the process of developing English. Within two to three years upon arrival to the U.S., ELLs rapidly develop social English that allows them to carry daily conversations. However, they do not read and write as proficiently as FEPs and it takes ELLs up to seven years to be on grade level (Cummins, 1981). Though ELLs may have sufficient English to converse in social settings, this does not mean that they are capable of fully understanding content area learning, such as in their science class.

According to Krashen, (2003), language acquisition takes place when second language learners understand messages through comprehensible input. When a message is delivered in English that is slightly above their current level, ELLs understand the message and as a result their language acquisition process is expedited. Comprehensible input has significant implication for teaching ELLs, especially in the area of content learning. If ELLs do not understand their teachers' explanations, they simply will not learn. However, a problem identified with regard to comprehensible input is that teachers' speech often is not appropriate. Primarily, teachers speak too fast for ELLs to understand (Echevarria, Vogt, & Short, 2000). In order to reach their ELL students, mainstream teachers have to modify their speech when they are giving directions or explaining essential concepts related to lessons. They need to slow down their pace and clearly pronounce important words. Another recommended speech modification includes teachers' avoidance of using idioms and slang terms that may be recognizable to FEPs but not ELLs.

Comprehensible input in content-area learning, however, is more than simply teachers' appropriate speech. It also has to do with how teachers introduce topics and deliver lessons. That is, teachers should use diverse strategies to facilitate content learning and conceptual understanding by ELLs. Such strategies include using visuals, realia, hands-on activities, even body language and gestures (Echevarria et al., 2000). Comprehensible input also has to do with scaffolding. …

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