School & District Management

The Latest Research on Teaching Science to ELLs

By Mary Ann Zehr — September 09, 2010 2 min read
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Researchers for the Center for Applied Linguistics have just documented the success of two interventions for teaching science to English-language learners, according to a research brief just released by the Center for Research on the Educational Achievement and Teaching of English Language Learners, or CREATE. They found that students who participated in the interventions made significant improvement in aspects of science learning. According to the researchers, the findings demonstrate that “combining good science teaching with scaffolding and a focus on language development is an effective method for helping English-language learners in science classrooms.”

“Scaffolding,” by the way, is a term that the researchers seem to assume readers will know, so they don’t give a definition for it. I understand scaffolding to be extra supports teachers give students (an analogy is the scaffolding used in construction of buildings) to learn an academic concept, such as showing visuals or breaking down tasks required in lessons by talking through a reading text or previewing the goals and procedures in an experiment.

In the first successful science intervention described, teachers aimed to develop 3rd and 4th graders’ academic language in English-as-a-second-language science lessons. It was carried out by 30 teachers at 18 schools in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. The intervention involved an hourlong language segment that was added to a summer school science enrichment program for ELLs. Methods included pre- and post-teaching of vocabulary using visuals and engaging students in prereading activities such as talking about a question they should keep in mind while reading about the science concept to be studied. Results showed that students who had participated in the intervention make significantly more improvement in learning the vocabulary when it was taught to them explicitly than when it was not.

The second successful science intervention was part of a CREATE project called Quality English and Science Teaching that aims to help teachers develop the science knowledge and academic language of both ELLs and fluent speakers of English at the middle school level. Ten 6th grade science teachers participated and the sample included 890 students, 562 of whom were ELLs.

The intervention required teachers to use those scaffolding techniques that I talked about earlier in this blog post. For example, the research brief says, in a lesson about osmosis, a teacher had students initially observe the process of osmosis with a tea bag and water. Students who participated in the intervention showed more improvement, by a statistically significant margin, on a posttest for both science knowledge and vocabulary than students who hadn’t.

I’m glad to see that CREATE is focusing on research on how best to teach academic content to ELLs in the middle school grades. As I mentioned in a blog post earlier this week, research on and educational tools for ELLs have tended to focus more on such students at the elementary level.

CREATE is a partnership of some of the best-known researchers on ELLs funded by the Institute of Education Sciences of the U.S. Department of Education.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.