Partnership Blends Science and English Proficiency

By Nora Fleming — March 26, 2013 | Corrected: February 21, 2019 8 min read
Ahasbai Guerrero studies shadows in Gennifer Caven's 3rd grade classroom at El Verano Elementary School in Sonoma, Calif. San Francisco's Exploratorium developed an inquiry-based curriculum that blends English and science lessons.
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Corrected: An earlier version of this story contained an incorrect spelling of the name of Sonoma schools Superintendent Louann Carlomagno.

Dark window coverings block any sunlight from filtering into Gennifer Caven’s 3rd grade classroom here in California’s Sonoma Valley, but small lights can be seen flickering throughout the room. Groups of two or three students huddle together at their desks, taking turns using miniature flashlights to illuminate tiny figurines and wooden blocks on white paper. When the lights hit the sides of propped-up manila file folders, shadows appear.

These pupils at El Verano Elementary School aren’t just learning the science behind shadows, they’re also improving their English-language skills. Their instruction is part of a federally funded collaborative project between the 4,600-student Sonoma district and the Exploratorium, a science museum in San Francisco.

Circling the room, Ms. Caven prompts students to see what happens when they move the light source “closer” or “farther” away and how they can make the shadow “bigger” or “smaller.” She asks them to jot down their findings in their science journals.

As shadows, small plastic horses suddenly grow twice their size; toothpicks stuck into balls of clay turn into terrestrial creatures.

“There’s no screaming in science,” Ms. Caven says to the excited children as they change the sizes and shapes of their shadows.

As the release of the Next Generation Science Standards draws near, hands-on, inquiry-based methods of science instruction like those taught in Sonoma are becoming more common. Yet its use of science to teach English is a novel approach—one that offers significant potential for other districts to replicate, some educators say, especially as the number of English-language learners rises.

“Science can be a nexus for learning English for ELLs because it provides a natural setting to learn a language,” said Okhee Lee, a professor of childhood education at New York University and a researcher on English-learners and science. “Engaging ELLs in these practices merits special attention, because such engagement can support both science learning and language learning, but unfortunately, instruction in U.S. classrooms has not tended to bridge the two.”

Symbiotic Relationship

Before 2008, the school system in Sonoma Valley, a 17-mile-long area 45 minutes north of San Francisco, encountered a challenge districts elsewhere have faced: No Child Left Behind-induced pressure to teach and test English/language arts and math meant science instruction in elementary schools fell by the wayside.

When science was taught, it was textbook-based or hands-off, rather than the hands-on practices that leading science educators say are necessary to build students’ deeper knowledge of the discipline, said Superintendent Louann Carlomagno, a former science teacher herself.

Yahir Mexicano spies a worm through a magnifying glass in Victoria Silberman's 1st grade class.

The Vadasz Family Foundation and the Sonoma Valley Education Foundation, two local philanthropies, wanted to do something to improve the quality of elementary science instruction and reached out to the Exploratorium—renowned for its science professional-development offerings and curriculum support for educators.

But the funders didn’t stop there. The district’s large and growing population of English-language learners also needed support, they felt, and wondered if there was a way to combine improvement goals.

The birthplace of the California wine industry, Sonoma Valley is home to a diverse range of residents, not only the wealthy. Many students are from poor families; 59 percent qualify for free or reduced-price meals. And a slight majority, 51 percent, are English-learners. Those numbers have increased in recent years.

Many of the students’ parents work at the nearly 100 wineries in the valley, or the hotels and restaurants that support the 1 million or so tourists who visit each year, Ms. Carlomagno said.

While the Exploratorium had worked with schools and teachers to improve science instruction using inquiry-based methods in the past, melding language instruction into science instruction was new territory, said Lynn Rankin, the director of the museum’s Institute for Inquiry, which runs the project.

The institute consulted with experts on English-language instruction on best practices for language development, and determined which were most relevant to infuse into best science-teaching practices.

A pilot project was launched in 2008 at El Verano Elementary—the elementary school with the highest percentage of ELLs and the highest rate of poverty in the district—with three teachers and a few lessons. Two years later, the Exploratorium was successful in winning a federal Investing in Innovation, or i3, five-year grant for some $3 million (and $600,000 in matching funds) to expand the project to all five of the district’s elementary schools.

In many schools, language development is taught in isolation or as a pullout program where students are removed from class, often from science or social studies classes, putting the students involved at a “double disadvantage” for understanding science, Ms. Rankin said.

“There seems to be the misperception that children have to have a certain level of language proficiency to understand science, but we have a different view,” she added. “Science provides a perfect opportunity for language development,” she said, “because students want to make sense of their experiences and communicate their ideas. Science instead provides a context for learning language.”

To date, 60 teachers have been trained in the method of instruction and 12 lesson plans have been developed for K-5, two per grade. Museum staff members regularly visit the schools and observe, and they provide monthly professional-development workshops. Each summer, teachers attend several daylong sessions to hone their skills.

Improved Test Scores

Victoria Silberman’s 1st graders sit on a brightly colored carpet, staring attentively at the whiteboard.

“Where have you seen worms?” asks Ms. Silberman.

In my backyard, in the garden, in the dirt, her pupils respond. She writes those words on the board.

“What do worms need?” she asks.

Dirt. Shelter. Water. Food.

On a recent day, pupils first learn the words to talk about the long brown-and-gray earthworms slithering in Petri dishes on their desks before they’re allowed to observe them. Seeing, hearing, and discussing the science helps them with the vocabulary to label drawings in their science journals and talk about what they and their partners find examining the worms when the full class reconvenes.

But the language learned in Sonoma’s science lessons flourishes mostly by students’ need to use it when they see and touch the natural world through in-class experiments, teachers say. That almost artful integration of language instruction into science makes students unaware they are actually learning; they just want to talk about what they experience.

Initiatives like the Sonoma Valley and Exploratorium project can be successful conduits to learning language because all children are naturally curious and want to know the words behind the objects, say educators and researchers.

The Sonoma approach offers potential because language is essential to the inquiry-based-science processes of experimentation, discussion, and argumentation—some of the very principles emphasized in the Next Generation Science Standards, said Michael Lach, the director of STEM Policy and Strategic Initiatives at the University of Chicago. He is a former head of STEM—or science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—policy and strategic initiatives at the U.S. Department of Education.

“While science instruction is still about knowing the parts of a flower or the formulas for electromagnetism, it’s now also about creating an argument based on evidence from the natural world,” he said.

The Sonoma-Exploratorium lessons emphasize student collaboration with peers in small groups to answer teacher-generated questions, as well as framing their own. The conversation and “science talk” helps build students’ confidence in their English ability that they use when the class discusses findings and draws conclusions.

While an independent evaluation of the program’s impact on students and teachers is in the works by Iverness Research Inc. and the Lawrence Hall of Science, both San Francisco Bay Area-based research organizations, some teachers here say the effect on students is readily apparent. In addition to improving students’ knowledge of science and the English language, the instruction has also fueled their interest in science, especially when they have the language ability to discuss what they learn and find.

In 2008, 37 percent of El Verano’s 5th graders tested “proficient” in science on state standardized tests; by 2011, that number had risen to 49 percent. (California only requires students be tested in science in 5th grade.) Performance on the state’s English-language-proficiency tests has also steadily improved.

Parent Involvement

Minimal science instruction in elementary schools has remained a problem in California, as in other states. Only one in five classrooms teaches science daily, a national survey of math and science instruction recently found. And in California, WestEd, a nonprofit research organization based in San Francisco, found 40 percent of the state’s elementary teachers spent 60 minutes or less on science instruction a week. Eighty-five percent of teachers also reported having received no science professional development within the past three years.

Administrators cite testing pressures for reading and math, and limited resources for teacher training as the biggest obstacles to science instruction.

But collaborations between schools and community partners, such as the Exploratorium, the Science Museum of Minnesota, and the American Museum of Natural History in New York, have helped alleviate some of those problems.

Since the start of the Sonoma Valley project at El Verano Elementary, Principal Maite Iturri said parents have approached her with comments like, “I didn’t know my child talked so much” or, one mentioned, “My child is suddenly asking a lot of ‘why’ questions.”

“I knew we had to start explaining what we were doing here,” she said, referring to parent workshops, in English and Spanish, the school launched to teach parents the same science the students learn in school so they can help their children at home.

Ms. Iturri hopes the Exploratorium project will also change student attitudes and future plans.

“When I was in school, I was actually afraid of science. … Science was not really encouraged or even an option for girls to pursue,” she said. “I want all my kids not to be afraid of science and to feel confident to go into a science field. I don’t want the doors closed for anyone.”

Coverage of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education is supported by a grant from the Noyce Foundation, at www.noycefdn.org.
A version of this article appeared in the March 27, 2013 edition of Education Week as Partnership Combines Science Instruction and English Learning


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