Finding the Language to Teach Science

By Sean Cavanagh — September 29, 2008 9 min read
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Martina Perez is preparing her 4th graders for one of the most basic experiments in science, but she wants to review some basic English vocabulary with them first.

“Straw,” the elementary school teacher says, holding up the plastic tube for her class of mostly Haitian-American students to see. “Wa-sher,” she enunciates slowly, showing them a small, circular piece of metal and asking them to repeat after her.

From there, the teacher at Gratigny Elementary School introduces the children, many of whom have grown up speaking Creole, to a hands-on activity on electricity and magnetism, a lesson that presents them with a host of new and unfamiliar words. But rather than avoid that linguistic challenge, Ms. Perez embraces it.

The elementary teacher is one of more than 400 educators in the Miami-Dade County, Fla., school system taking part in a professional-development and curriculum program that attempts to build students’ science knowledge while also helping them master English. Developed by researchers at the University of Miami, the Promoting Science among English Language Learners program, or P-SELL, addresses a number of the crucial challenges facing elementary teachers in urban districts and other communities that have seen an influx of non-native English-speakers.

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For more stories on this topic see Curriculum and Learning.

Teachers of the early grades often admit to feeling lost in science, since many themselves have taken little college coursework in the subject. Their struggles are compounded when they’re asked to explain that content, which is often doused in scientific jargon, to students with weak English skills.

The challenge is particularly evident here. A majority, or 62 percent, of the Miami-Dade school system’s 347,000 students are Hispanic. But the district also serves a medley of ethnic groups, whose children speak 107 languages.

Haitians, who have fled their home country’s economic and political turmoil in large numbers over the years, make up one of the biggest groups: They now account for 5 percent of enrollment districtwide and are the majority at several schools.

Strength in Small Groups

One such school is Gratigny Elementary, where about 90 percent of the students are Haitian-American. Many students at the school, located a 15-minute drive north of downtown Miami, hear primarily Creole spoken at home. That means teachers like Ms. Perez, who works with students with varying levels of English skill, are often required to build vocabulary from the ground up.

Martina Perez runs many hands-on and small-group activities in her 4th grade science classes to help children whose first language is not English.

Five years ago, administrators at her school, in search of strategies to help such teachers, applied to take part in the P-SELL program, along with five other schools in the Miami-Dade district. Three additional schools have since joined the program, which targets grades 3-5.

Ms. Perez, like all participating P-SELL teachers, attended three years of professional-development workshops. Those sessions focused on improving teachers’ science understanding, and showed them how different activities, such as hands-on experiments, small-group discussions, and writing, can improve students’ knowledge of both science and English.

Hands-on activities enable students to learn English in several ways, rather than just through a textbook, P-SELL officials say. And small-group activities force students to communicate scientific facts and ideas to one another, they maintain.

Before taking part in the P-SELL workshops, “I didn’t teach much science, because I was afraid of it, or I didn’t have the materials for it,” Ms. Perez said. “I didn’t have the training.” But the P-SELL program allowed her to go through the “trial and error,” she said. “I made the mistakes before my students did.”

Ms. Perez tries to build English skills any way she can. On the front wall of her classroom, she’s affixed small drawings with vocabulary terms to show students the difference between terms like “son” and “sun,” and “here” and “hear,” among other common stumbling blocks.

Signs in English, Creole, and Spanish greet visitors at Gratigny Elementary in Miami.

The small-group discussions allow the boys and girls to help their peers with tricky language.

That’s evident as Ms. Perez leads them into an experiment on electricity and magnetism using tools—battery, wire, and a light bulb—familiar to science teachers everywhere. She breaks up the students into groups of four or five, roughly based on their language ability, asking them to make individual predictions about which objects will conduct electricity: A sponge? A straw? A washer?

The children run their tests. They are asked to provide written explanations to a number of questions about the results of the experiment, a task that reinforces their English skills and asks them to put their reasoning on paper.

The students’ background materials include an English-to-Creole vocabulary sheet, which helps them translate such words as magnetism from mayetis in Creole, and charge from chaj or chaje. Though the youngsters mostly converse in English, Ms. Perez recalls hearing words like batri and pozitif (battery and positive) as she moves among the groups, and other dialogue she can’t follow.

She steps in here and there, telling the students to stay on task and to record information from their experiments precisely. “Did the paper clip conduct electricity?” Ms. Perez leans in and asks one group. Yes, the children respond. Then write it down, she says. They won’t be able to summarize their results without that information.

Years ago, it was hard to get students enthusiastic about science, Ms. Perez said. Now, her students complain on days that she isn’t able to spend much time on it.

“They’re getting the love of science—the inquisitive mind,” Ms. Perez said. “Before, science was something from books or movies. Now it’s more real to them.”

Gains Made

That enthusiasm appears to be paying off for the P-SELL schools. University of Miami officials recruited schools with low grades and test scores under Florida’s accountability system. They also targeted schools with large numbers of disadvantaged students.

During the first two years of recorded results, the six P-SELL schools made stronger gains on Florida’s state science test than a comparison group that did not use the program, records show. The P-SELL schools also made greater improvements in math-measurement skills on the state test, an area emphasized in the P-SELL science curriculum, program officials say.

Those improvements matter in Miami-Dade County. Unlike in many states, science scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test factor into the grades schools receive as part of the state accountability program. Poor-performing schools can face mandatory interventions or closures.

Against those realities, P-SELL offers an attractive strategy for helping schools, said Antoinette P. Dunbar, the associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction for the Miami-Dade school system.

The district is looking at whether P-SELL can be expanded for use in more of the system’s 200 or so elementary schools, she said. Accomplishing that would probably require school and university officials to close the “disconnect” between some sections of the P-SELL and district science curriculum, Ms. Dunbar noted, though both approaches are designed to prepare students for the state assessment.

Although the Miami-Dade district has a relatively large population of teachers who speak Spanish, it has few fluent in Creole, so innovative strategies help, she said.

“It’s a very easy and manageable curriculum,” Ms. Dunbar said of P-SELL. “It motivates teachers because it gives them science that they can handle and that is real, and magnifies it for them.”

The P-SELL program tries to help teachers in the early grades overcome both their fear of science and their unease in presenting that material to English-language learners, said Okhee Lee, a professor of science education at the University of Miami and the director of P-SELL.

“Teachers are much more comfortable incorporating language arts and math when they become comfortable with the science,” Ms. Lee said. “We’re starting with the science and building their confidence.”

The program has been financed with a five-year, $5 million grant from the National Science Foundation, which expires at the end of this year. Ms. Lee has applied for more federal funding, and she may pursue additional money from private sources to sustain and expand the program.

The idea of using science, and the opportunities for active learning it provides, as a vehicle for English-language instruction, makes sense, said Catherine E. Snow, a professor of education at Harvard University who studies literacy acquisition and academic achievement.

Manual and video instruction can help English-learners grasp unfamiliar background concepts and facts, and potentially have strong motivational power, she said.

“Teaching or talking about something that’s interesting or important to these students, as opposed to presenting things as disembodied skills, is absolutely the way to go,” Ms. Snow said.

‘Minds-On’ Tasks

Teachers who take part in P-SELL receive training in content and classroom strategies for many major scientific topics, such as the water cycle, weather, force and motion, and electricity. They are encouraged to promote “inquiry” in their instruction—basically, having students acquire and obtain science knowledge through the processes used by scientists, rather than just through a textbook or lecture.

The goal is to promote not only hands-on activities, but also what Ms. Lee and her colleagues call “minds-on” tasks—those that force pupils to question and challenge one another’s scientific assumptions and conclusions—a process that helps build English skills.

Too many professional-development programs assume that teachers work in “the perfect classroom,” where “it’s 15 or 20 kids, they’re all on grade level, they all speak English,” said Yanetsi Torres, a 4th grade teacher at Hialeah Elementary School, which takes part in the program and where most students are Latino. “When you get into a real class, it’s difficult.”

The P-SELL program, in contrast, is geared to tell teachers “day to day what you need to do” with struggling students, she said.

Along with instructional guides and written materials for students, P-SELL teachers receive all the classroom supplies they need to conduct experiments. That’s a major benefit, say several teachers who take part in the program and are accustomed to having to buy materials for lab experiments—starch, vinegar, Q-tips, balloons—out of their own pockets.

Theodore Cooper, a teacher at Hialeah Elementary, said the program has greatly expanded his understanding of science. It allows him to bore in on important, and difficult, topics in more depth, rather than skipping ahead.

“It would be great if all your students got it on Monday,” Mr. Cooper said during a break from class. “But that doesn’t happen. I never want to take them from A to C, if they haven’t gotten B.”

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Coverage of mathematics, science, and technology education is supported by a grant from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 2008 edition of Education Week as Finding the Language To Teach Science


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