Blending Language Learning with Science: With Purposeful Planning, Teachers Can Reach All Students with the Dual Goals of Language Development and Scientific Inquiry

By Bergman, Daniel | The Science Teacher, April-May 2013 | Go to article overview

Blending Language Learning with Science: With Purposeful Planning, Teachers Can Reach All Students with the Dual Goals of Language Development and Scientific Inquiry


Bergman, Daniel, The Science Teacher


Nearly 10% of American students are identified as "Limited English Proficient" (NCELA 2011). To serve this diverse population of English Language Learners (ELLs), teachers need proven instructional strategies. One prevalent approach is sheltered instruction, defined as "teaching content to English learners in strategic ways that make the subject matter concepts comprehensible while promoting the students' English language development" (Echevarria, Vogt, and Short 2008, p. 5). With sheltered instruction, ELL students can develop their language skills in a regular classroom setting while learning standard subject content along with everyone else.

For example, in a science class using sheltered instruction, ELL students are interspersed with native English speakers and are expected to learn science content as well as hone their English language comprehension. This parallel path of learning doesn't occur automatically: Teachers must plan and teach to promote both avenues of education. Yet adding language instruction to a science class doesn't necessarily require a massive overhaul in teaching methods, either. This article addresses how science inquiry and sheltered instruction strategies can work together.

Science teachers who already promote inquiry-based learning (Bybee 2002; Colburn 2000; NSTA 2004) in their classrooms will notice a friendly familiarity with many strategies advocated in sheltered instruction. Figure 1 shows essential components found in both disciplines.

Figure 1

Strategies common to science inquiry and ELL sheltered instruction.

Connections to students'  Informed by constructivism (Brooks
experiences               and Brooks 2001), teachers must draw
                          out and build upon learners'
                          experiences, which include personal
                          and cultural background, news and
                          popular media, preliminary
                          laboratory experiences, discrepant
                          events, and more.

Meaningful and memorable  Experiences in the classroom and
materials                 laboratory involve visual and
                          hands-on materials such as
                          manipulatives, realia (real-life
                          objects), pictures, models, graphs,
                          and multimedia such as videos,
                          interactive software, and internet
                          resources.

Learning by doing         Active student involvement is
                          necessary for language acquisition
                          and science inquiry alike. Students
                          need to practice and participate in
                          the process, with contributions
                          ranging from brainstorming
                          investigative questions to
                          presenting and defending
                          conclusions.

Opportunities for         Whether learning a second language,
application               science content, or both, students
                          must have opportunities to apply
                          knowledge to new situations.
                          Research projects, field trips,
                          graphic organizers, reports, and
                          writing are all avenues for
                          application.

Student-student           Planned social interactions--group
interactions              projects, cooperative activities,
                          role-play, debates, and
                          discussions--provide more practice
                          and enhance student learning through
                          common experiences and language
                          (Vygotsky 1978).

Teacher behaviors and     Even with a student-focused
interactions with         classroom, the teacher plays a
students                  critical role and must model clear
                          speech, welcoming body language,
                          personalized interactions,
                          open-ended questions, sufficient
                          wait time, and reflective responding
                          without excessive praise or
                          criticism. … 

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