By the turn of the century, experts predict that every science teacher in the country will have students in his or her classroom who are not native English speakers.
Yet when Elizabeth Bernhardt and her former colleagues at the National Center for Science Teaching and Learning looked through the professional literature for information on how science teachers could best teach those students, they came up almost empty-handed. Of the nearly 8,000 pages of science teaching-methods textbooks they examined, only 16 pages specifically mentioned second-language learners. And 13 of those came from the same book.
What they found even more discouraging was that some of the science teachers they interviewed as part of their search told them they weren't interested in the subject. "Our job is to teach science,'' Bernhardt recalls the teachers saying. "Send them when they're ready for science, and then everything will be OK.''
But to the researchers at the Columbus, Ohio-based center, that response was unacceptable. They knew from other studies that students need six to eight years to become completely fluent in a second language.
"If we're sitting around waiting six to eight years, then kids are 14 or 16, at best, before they can get into a science class,'' says Bernhardt, who now directs the language center at Stanford University.
Finding a better solution is what the recently completed NCSTL study was all about. The project had a twofold mission: to determine how science teachers could best address the needs of the second-language learners and to get that message into the hands of teachers. In the process, however, the research team discovered something else altogether: For students learning a new language, many of the hands-on methods now used and touted to teach science may do more harm than good.
The NCSTL is one of more than 20 research centers supported by the U.S. Department of Education. According to Michael Aiello, the center's program manager, the question of how to teach science to culturally diverse students has always been part of its mission.
Says Bernhardt: "Science knowledge is clearly the knowledge that is going to give kids the greatest access to the greatest number of opportunities in their lives. If kids don't get turned on to science in the early grades, they're lost.''
Scientific vocabulary, she notes, poses a major stumbling block for many second-language learners. Words such as "force'' and "mass'' that have both a common and scientific meaning can be especially perplexing. And scientific and technical terms that aren't used in everyday life pose another whole set of challenges.
To carry out its research mission, the center hired Bernhardt, whose previous work at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education in Canada had focused on language learning. The directors reasoned that her perspective could offer new insights for science educators. Yes and no, Bernhardt found out. "It's not so easy to walk into somebody else's field and say, 'Let me give you my perspective,' '' she says.
Besides combing the professional literature and interviewing science teachers, Bernhardt and her team carefully studied two model classrooms: a Spanish-language immersion classroom at Gladstone Elementary School in Columbus, Ohio, and a program for Spanish-speaking students considered at risk of failing at Santa Cruz (Calif.) High School. They visited these classes over a period of months, videotaping lessons, analyzing dialogue, and testing students. From those efforts, they drew several conclusions.
First, while most science teachers they interviewed seemed to think that the way to help struggling English speakers was to simplify their teaching, the teachers in the two model programs succeeded by taking a different tack. Instead of dumbing down instruction, they elaborated on their science talk, emphasizing the proper vocabulary and giving students more information if it was needed to help them make sense of the content.
"When we use language that's chopped out or broken in some way,'' Bernhardt says, "we immediately deny kids exactly what they need, which is access to scientific vocabulary.''
The model teachers also made what the researchers called "online adjustments''--tailoring their lessons as they went along to plug in the gaps they saw in students' knowledge or to draw out what students knew but could not say.
The study team concluded that students often knew more than they could express in an unfamiliar language. Allowing students to talk with one another in their native tongues helped capitalize on that existing knowledge base. And almost all the students were better at writing about science than they were at speaking about it. "There's more time to think and compose,'' Bernhardt explains.
The researchers' most controversial findings, however, are those that raise questions about the current movement in science education to give students more hands-on experiences.
Eight months into their nine-month observation of the 42 4th and 5th graders at Gladstone Elementary, investigators decided to give 20 students an independent assessment. They asked the youngsters to read four different text selections in Spanish, which was their second language. One was a narrative, and the other three were expository texts about the scientific method, the classification of animals, and the planets. The students were asked to recall the texts in the language they felt most comfortable with.
The researchers also examined the student's scores in reading, vocabulary, and mathematics on a national standardized test. And, finally, during the last month of the experiment, they gave the children a performance assessment on the scientific method and the use of variables. (Their task was to figure out how to determine the absorbency of a paper towel.)
The researchers found that, for the most part, students' scores on the Spanish reading tasks correlated with the standardized-test measures. But neither of these measures could be linked to the results of the performance assessment. The latter failed to show what kids could glean from written texts. "What we think that tells us is that the performance assessment does indeed tap behaviors other than those generally tapped by more conventional measures,'' Bernhardt says. "At the same time, however, that indicates that the performance assessment doesn't tap literacy ability--the ability to glean information from text materials.''
At Santa Cruz High School, where the students were learning English, the researchers made a similar observation. Two weeks after the 15 or so 10th graders in that program gave oral science reports in English, many of them had trouble recalling what their presentations had been about. "The kids were so concerned about their performance in English,'' Bernhardt says, "that they had apparently done a lot of memorizing to get through the report and do a good job.''
What all this means, Bernhardt and her colleagues have concluded, is that the pendulum in the movement to reform science education may have swung too far for students who struggle with a second language. Even in exemplary second-language programs like the ones the center researchers followed, teaching and testing that focus on the "doing'' of science can have a cost. Performance assessments can give the false impression that students know more--or less--than they do. And they simply do not address scientific literacy skills.
"Much of the scientific endeavor is discussion and experimentation, which is what performance assessment focuses on,'' Bernhardt says. "But another part of the scientific endeavor is being informed about science knowledge, and that is important, too.''
Such findings are not very popular these days. "You'd have to be cautious about any recommendations that would say to reduce the amount of time that kids have experiences with scientific phenomena,'' says Kenneth Tobin, a professor of science education at Florida State University. Tobin questions whether the center's evidence is strong enough to support all of its conclusions. Still, he adds, "If students are doing it and not learning, then we have to say, 'OK, how can we develop the scientific discourse?' ''
Despite the skeptical reception their work has received, the researchers have tried to get their message out to science educators and reformers. If nothing else, they at least are drawing the attention of teachers to the special needs of second-
language learners, notes Aiello, director of the science teaching center. "In some sense, this issue was not on the radar screen at all when we first started,'' he says. "Maybe now we're a blip on the edge.''