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Curriculum Opinion

Author Interview: ‘Teaching Science to English Learners’

By Larry Ferlazzo — June 17, 2019 7 min read
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Stephen Fleenor agreed to answer a few questions about his new book, Teaching Science to English Learners, written with Tina Beene.

Dr. Stephen Fleenor is an educational consultant with Seidlitz Education, specializing in language-rich content-area instruction and growth mindset.

LF: You write: “For science classes, questions should drive the lessons.” Why do you say that, and what are some things teachers can do to encourage and scaffold question-asking by English-language learners?

Dr. Stephen Fleenor:

Generally speaking, questioning is a cornerstone of effective teaching of any content because it stimulates student thinking about that content. That questioning often comes directly from the teacher. Teacher-led questioning is important, and strategies for scaffolding teacher-led questioning are embedded throughout the book (for example, the provision of think time and sentence stems such as what is provided by the QSSSA process). However, it is important to recognize that the ultimate goal we should be driving toward in science lessons is student-led questioning.

After all, the fundamental purpose of K-12 education is to create contributing citizens of the global society. This is no truer than in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields, where the daily job description is to innovate and discover. For STEM professionals to find new answers in the pursuit of technological and intellectual progress, they must be trained in the art of asking new questions. That’s where we come in by encouraging student-led questioning in our STEM K-12 classes.

Teacher-led questioning, therefore, is an essential structure for student thinking about the content and a modeling of the thinking process that leads to new questions being asked. But teacher-led questioning is only half of the equation. Just as low-stress opportunities for output is equally as important as comprehensible input for second-language acquisition, having students practice asking great questions is equally as important as teachers asking great questions for science process acquisition.

To get English-learners asking great questions, I first implore teachers to create a safe culture of total participation and I next encourage teachers to embrace the axiom that there are no bad questions. Start by having students to simply express confusion or uncertainty about something, with sentence stems such as “I’m confused about ____ because ...” or “I do not understand ____ because ...” and build students toward “I wonder why ...” or “What would happen if ...” as they grow in English-language proficiency, science-content knowledge, and confidence.

LF: Most, if not all, of the instructional strategies that you write about to support ELLs seem to me could be very beneficial for all students—regardless of their English proficiency. What are some of the key strategies you discuss in the book that you think could be particularly helpful with non-ELLs, too?

Dr. Stephen Fleenor:

I talk a lot about the “science language” as though it is distinct from the English language. Indeed, science is so vocabulary-laden and so unique in its formal and objective voice that it is nearly indecipherable to even fluent English speakers who lack science training (which is why shows like The Big Bang Theory are so funny!). In 7 Steps to a Language-Rich Foreign Language Classroom, Anna Matis talks about the roles of motivation, access to language, and quality of instruction as key factors within teachers’ control that profoundly impact new language development.

That is exactly what the strategies in Teaching Science to ELs address and exactly what ELs and non-ELs alike need to master science content. A major component of motivation is a student’s fundamental self-belief that he or she can productively participate—be it a structured conversation, a lab, or any other activity. Strategies such as Complete the Picture and Visual Pre-Read break content into manageable chunks and provide visual scaffolds to give students confidence to engage in the activity.

Part and parcel with confidence is open-endedness in building motivation as well as access to language. Open-ended activities are really important because they convey that there is no one “right” answer. A classroom with open-ended activities allows each student to share their voice safely, which encourages them to participate. It also requires students to think more deeply about the content and vocabulary. Teachers have often told me they struggle with creating open-ended questions, so I was sure to include a section in the book that explains how to turn a closed-ended question into an open-ended question.

Above all else, what ELs and non-ELs alike struggle with the most is science writing, so it’s important to provide lots of opportunities for structured science writing. This structure looks like unambiguous expectations for high-quality writing: the inclusion of key vocabulary words and/or examples; models for well-written and poorly written responses; and structured conversations prior to writing that help students brainstorm. I strongly encourage science teachers to make writing, anywhere from two sentences to two paragraphs (depending on grade level), a daily goal for all science lessons.

LF: Some of the strategies you discuss seem like they might take a fair amount of prep time, while others seem pretty simple. What are some simple first steps a teacher who is just beginning to teach ELLs might take that wouldn’t be too overwhelming?

Dr. Stephen Fleenor:

I believe any great science lesson includes a strong emphasis on vocabulary that includes all language processes (speaking, listening, reading, and writing). For a teacher who is new to teaching ELs, or new to teaching, or simply exhausted in the middle of February, I recommend making the first steps of lesson planning to identify two to four vocabulary words to emphasize and two or three open-ended questions to ask.

Often science resources list upwards of 10-20 vocabulary words for any given learning standard, which is far too much for a student (especially an English-learner) to internalize within a single lesson. That’s why I say make a focus on two to four words. Have students pronounce the words chorally by breaking up the syllables with the class (such as “de-, de-for-, de-for-est-, de-for-est-ation”) at the start of the lesson, then emphasize the words and have the students use the words as often as possible throughout the lesson.

The two to three questions identified can serve as opportunities for structured conversations as well as for structured writing. A teacher can even instruct students to use the vocabulary words in their responses. Together this will help students process the content and create a clear goal for mastery. If students are listening and reading with a focus on key vocabulary and using that vocabulary in their writing and speaking, that alone is the stuff of great science learning.

Lastly, I recommend following any information input (via direct teaching, a video, or a reading passage) with general discussion prompts such as, “I think _____ means ...” or “____ is related to ____ because ...” There are lots of these generalized sentence stems throughout the book, and they can be used at lots of different times in any lesson.

LF: Are there any specific suggestions that you might have for a science teacher who might just have one or two ELLs in his/her class, while the vast majority of the students are English proficient?

Dr. Stephen Fleenor:

If a teacher has one or two beginner-level ELs, I recommend providing adapted texts (such as texts with components translated into a student’s home language via Google Translate or texts written in simplified English via Rewordify.com) and the opportunity to observe English-proficient speakers in structured conversations. The students’ ESL teacher can be enormously helpful in helping to prepare these texts and giving the students a preview of the lesson content ahead of time.

If a teacher has a more mixed range of English proficiency among his/her ELs, tiered sentence stems can be enormously beneficial to make the lesson accessible and challenging. To answer the same question, one sentence stem can simply require insertion of a vocabulary word (i.e., a fill-in-the-blank stem); one sentence stem can be open-ended; and one sentence stem can be open-ended and require justification (such as one ending in “because ...”). In my experience, students almost always choose the stem that is appropriately within their own zones of proximal development.

LF: Is there anything I haven’t asked you about that you’d like to share?

Dr. Stephen Fleenor:

Providing language-rich learning opportunities for science students is not just beneficial for English-language development of ELs. It is also best practice for learning science content, because as human beings we learn through using language. It’s no coincidence that we are the most intelligent species in the animal kingdom as well as the most capable of language. When we are exposed to comprehensible content and we are able to discuss and write about that content, our neurons actively make connections to cement the learning in the brain. Whether we serve one EL or 100 ELs or zero ELs, we are all serving science-language learners, and focusing our pedagogy on teaching the language of science is how our students are all going to best learn science.

LF: Thanks, Stephen!

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