Opinion Blog

Classroom Q&A

With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Response: Teaching ELLs That ‘Science Is a Verb’

By Larry Ferlazzo — January 05, 2016 17 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

(This is the last post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here.)

This week’s question is:

What are the best ways to teach the Next Generation Science Standards to English Language Learners?

In Part One, educators Alicia Johal, Maria Montalvo-Balbed, Donna Barrett-Williams, Caleb Cheung, Laura Prival , Claudio Vargas and Ariane Huddleston share their suggestions on using the NGSS with English Language Learners. You can also listen to a ten-minute conversation I had with Alicia, Maria and Donna on my BAM! Radio Show. You can find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Today, Maria Grant, Diana Lapp, Judy Reinhartz, Lori Fulton, Brian Campbell and Laura Cabrera contribute their ideas.

Response From Maria Grant & Diana Lapp

Dr. Maria Grant (Twitter: @mgrant62) is a Professor at California State University, Fullerton. Diana Lapp (Twitter:@lappsdsu) is a Distinguished Teacher of Education at San Diego State University. They are authors of Teaching students to think like scientists: Strategies aligned with the common core and next generation science standards and Reading and writing in science: Tools to develop disciplinary literacy:

Who are the Teachers of the Next Nobel Science Prize Recipients?

To answer the title question, consider this idea-- effective science instruction should involve students in thinking, talking, and writing about the science phenomena they see and experience in their daily lives. Through this lens of scientific reality they will learn that whatever their future jobs, science and literacy will be intertwined in their consumption and production of information. Now let’s consider six characteristics of highly effective teachers who design science instruction that uses daily life scientific occurrences to promote students’ inquiry, engineering design, technology application and results in advancing future generations of scientists or well-informed citizens. You know these teachers--they are the ones requested every year by many parents who realize how much their children are learning and loving science.

These highly effective teachers:

  1. Know the content of science they are teaching, understand how students learn, and realize the importance of literacy in acquiring and sharing information. Science is ever-evolving and yellow dog-eared notes will never be seen in the hands of these teachers. They remain in awe of the latest scientific discoveries and possibilities. They engage in research, read a wide array of scientific journals, and engage in professional development. They are characterized by inquiry and engineering possibilities.

  1. Have a clearly defined purpose for their instruction that correlates well with NGSS standards and their state literacy standards. They know the content they are teaching and the standards that undergird it. They have their intentional instruction well sequenced but are always able to make adjusts based on the performance of their students.

  1. Believe that all students can learn and motivates them to do so through laboratory experiments, questions asked, readings, and visual observations. Hooking all students regardless of economic, cultural, or language differences to science learning begins with the belief that the excitement of science is within the reach of every student who has ever felt sand, gazed at a star, wondered about dinosaurs, or envisioned the possibility of living on other planets.

  1. Collaborate with colleagues in many disciplines in order to make scientific connections to history, geography, mathematics, art, writing, reading, communication, health and sports. Effective teachers realize that many roads lead to scientific exploration.

  1. Assess all dimensions of the instructional context to collect data about the students, possible modes of delivery, and their instructional plans. Effective teachers realize that their goal is to motivate students to become knowledgeable consumers and producers of scientific information, and when their observations indicate that this isn’t happening, they make adjustments accordingly--even if the adjustments are to their original ideas. Indeed they are true scientists who make reflective changes based on data collected in many ways.

  1. Enjoy teaching and scientific investigation. It would be difficult spending five days each week for thirty years involved in a profession you didn’t love. Effective science teachers are dynamic in their exploration of science and convey this engagement to their students. Because they are open to learning, they encourage independence in their student’s thinking and are not offended by counter-opinions. Multiple well-grounded viewpoints are encouraged and seen by effective teachers as a way to promote self-confidence and independence in students.

Ideas that support teachers in becoming outstanding teachers of science who embrace these six characteristics can be found in these two texts:

Grant, M., Fisher, D., Lapp, D. (2015). Reading and writing in science: Tools to develop disciplinary literacy, 2nd.Ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Grant, M. C., Fisher, D., and Lapp, D. (2014). Teaching students to think like scientists: Strategies aligned with the common core and next generation science standards. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.

Response From Judy Reinhartz

Judy Reinhartz’ career spans nearly five decades in K-16 education as an educator, administrator, consultant, director of centers and academies for science, research, effective teaching and learning, and a writer of curriculum, grants, articles, chapters, and books, the most recent being, Growing Language Through Science: Strategies That Work published by Corwin Press in April 2015. She was an associate dean and is a professor emeritus at The University of Texas at El Paso, and her degrees include a Ph.D. from the University of New Mexico, masters’ from Seton Hall University, and bachelor’s from Rutgers University:

Science Is a Verb and All Students Benefit

What is science? It is a doing word that has transformative powers, offering a myriad of opportunities for all students to learn. Science is a “verb” that gets students to think, listen, read, and write about what they experience. After the National Science Standards were published, science somehow gradually lost its “groove” for active learning. With the coming of the Next Generation of Science Standards (NGSS), it got its groove back.

For many, NGSS have generated questions and perhaps even skepticism and doubt. But through the Standards, science can make a difference in students’ lives! It has a built in magic, drawing students in regardless of their level of language proficiency. And the Next Gen, as they are referred in the schools, provide a way to maximize this magic by engaging students in science and engineering practices and learning about crosscutting concepts and disciplinary core ideas. These three dimensions along with the performance expectations offer teachers many pathways to motivate their students and facilitate the development of science and literacy skills along the way. Whether participating in practices or talking about core disciplinary ideas and the cross cutting concepts that form a bridge to connect them, science provides a context for using communicative language skills.

The NGSS have an uplifting quality that recognizes the value of all students and are built on the premise of learning by doing. By moving science away from strictly using print materials to integrating more hands-on inquiry-based experiences into the learning process, “doing science” as mapped out in the Standards serves as a natural motivator and academic engine for utilizing language.

Often, standards have a mystical aura about them. But many online and print resources are available to assist teachers in planning and implementing relevant inquiry-based science lessons. The new Standards present opportunities for growth, analogous to the spring of the year. Everything is possible; there are new beginnings. So too, for students who are new to English and face educational challenges in the science classroom. Embracing the tenets embedded in NGSS breathes new life into any science curriculum and in doing so benefits all learners. The Standards support their learning not only about the world around them, but in ways to express their ideas orally and in writing and to share these ideas through reading. Indeed, NGSS not only reflect the best that we know about science teaching and learning, providing scaffolds that promote all forms of communication, but also stimulate students’ natural curiosity and confidence.

Learning becomes a chain reaction when students engage in practices that scientists and engineers do everyday--spending much of their time thinking, observing, testing their ideas, analyzing, drawing conclusions, and often starting all over again. Once students are consistently “doing” science, they recognize and understand the relationships between the core ideas and the crosscutting concepts.

One first grader summed up science best when he said it is “figyoring theings oat.” It is this “figuring things out” that is at the heart of the new Standards and serves as a catalyst for capitalizing on and growing students’ talents and abilities.

Response From Lori Fulton & Brian Campbell

Lori Fulton and Brian Campbell are the authors of Science Notebooks: Writing About Inquiry. Lori is an Assistant Professor at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa where she works with pre-service teachers in the Institute for Teacher Education. Brian is a curriculum developer for FOSS at the Lawrence Hall of Science, University of California-Berkeley:

Using Science Notebooks with the Next Generation Science Standards to Support English Language Learners

The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) promotes a learning experience that is rich in student discourse, emphasizes student engagement in science, and focuses on important practices such as: asking questions, using models to represent ideas, developing explanations of their thinking, and arguing ideas based on evidence. In this context, language is used to make sense of concepts. This environment contributes to the language development of English Language Learners (ELLs); however, for this to work, learners must have access to native English speakers and support in using the language. While there are multiple approaches to developing such an environment, we will focus on the role science notebooks can play in promoting the learning of science and language through the NGSS.

Science notebooks are learning tools for students that serve as a natural complement to learning and understanding science in the manner NGSS requires. To a certain degree, they replicate the notebooks that scientists use, and as such they contain questions, data, plans, explanations, analysis and more. Through the use of science notebooks, students refine and develop their scientific ideas as well as language and language strategies.

One approach we have found to be successful involves a cycle of interaction in which the students and teacher move back and forth between working with materials and discussion. We will expand upon this cycle using an example related to the development of the core idea of Structure and Properties of Matter (PS1.A).

Initially during a science lesson, students work with materials in a common experience to build the foundations for science and language. During this time, a guiding question is posed, such as “What are the properties of liquid?” For ELLs, the meaning of ‘properties’ is crucial. Synonyms and a review of properties of solids provide context for their observations. Mixed-ability groups provide models of observations and the informal communication of those observations during an initial discussion.

From here, the focus shifts to recording these observations, in this example, with qualitative data. Students need to organize their data in a manner accessible to them later. A discussion of organizational tools is supported by the use of student models and a class notebook, providing visuals for students. Class data is recorded and improvement upon drawings, labels, and narrative observations can be demonstrated. Discussion of data often yields academic language from some students, but additional work is needed before those concepts are internalized by all.

Students return to their materials, and the focus shifts to deepening the understanding of science content. During this period, the teacher assesses students’ understandings by listening to their conversations and examining their notebooks. Connections between everyday and academic language are made, such as using the word “foamy” for the students’ description of the white bubbles that appear when shaking the liquid. During the class discussion, questions guide a sense-making conversation. Students are encouraged to analyze the data within their notebooks, look for patterns, talk with a partner, and then share out to the whole group. Formal connections between their language, the academic language, and the core idea are made and new vocabulary is placed in a word bank. Students individually answer the guiding question in their notebooks with support from language frames modeled in the class notebook.

The cycle described above, allows all students to develop the three dimensions (scientific practices, crosscutting concepts, and core ideas) of science through engagement with real phenomena and discussion. The science notebook, at the center of this cycle, provides a natural context for the development of the language and language strategies needed to engage in the discourse required by the NGSS. While beneficial for ELLs, the use of science notebooks and the cycle of interaction set all students up for success and making sense of science.

Response From Laura Cabrera

Laura Cabrera (formerly Colosi), an author and internationally recognized expert in parenting and education, holds a PhD from Cornell University where she taught for many years. She is currently senior faculty at Cabrera Research Lab in Ithaca, New York. She is the author of Thinking at Every Desk: Four Simple Skills to Transform Your Classroom. Watch Dr. Cabrera’s TED Talk on solutions to the problems of the education system and its pressures on students and teachers here:

The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) raise the expectations and competency levels desired in science for all of our students. They are rigorous and necessary. We also know that the increased proportion of English Language Learners (ELL) in schools has led to a notable gap in science proficiency relative to English speaking students. To resolve this issue, we must create opportunities for ELL to connect the NGSS content to their prior knowledge and previous experiences in their native culture and language, and we must strive to create meaningful bilingual dialogue with their home support systems.

As educators, it is important to first distinguish between scientific content and the process by which we come to understand it. So we should teach students both the content (ideas) and how we think through those ideas. We can accomplish this by differentiating concepts, relating them, breaking ideas into parts, and looking at them from multiple perspectives. Of particular interest is the connection between understanding how we think through ideas and the ability to grasp and apply the seven crosscutting concepts that unite the core concepts in the standards. These crosscutting concepts are specifically designed to bridge disciplinary boundaries throughout the sciences. For example, the cross cutting theme of “patterns” requires students to both organize and classify ideas as part-whole systems, and then relate them using a particular perspective, for example, organizing things like plants, DNA, and snowflakes from the perspective of symmetry in nature (NGSS, Appendix G, page 3). Thus, the explanation of how we think ideas through leads to a better understanding of both the core and crosscutting concepts in the NGSS so that students can master all of the scientific content as set forth in the standards. The additional challenge for ELL involves developing both a mastery of content and proficiency in the English language.

To develop effective strategies for ELL in mastering the NGSS, a teacher must assess the learner’s prior knowledge, scaffold new content linguistically, visually, and experientially, and build a strong connection between the scientific content and the student’s supports at home. Assessment of prior knowledge for an EL learner must incorporate both the student’s previous exposure to scientific concepts, practices, and processes, and his or her proficiency level with the English language. Scaffolding new concepts to build a conceptual bridge that a learner can traverse can be accomplished in many ways. I would argue that ELL students have particular need for robust non-linguistic techniques such as reification (i.e., making abstract ideas tangible with tactile manipulatives like math beads, etc.), graphic organization of information, team activities, and labeling of all vocabulary in both the native language and English.

Building a strong connection between the student’s native culture and their home lives creates relevancy for the student around content, and also facilitates the transfer of what was learned at school to the home environment. This can be accomplished in many ways, in particular by encouraging each student to describe that which is familiar to her or him (e.g., the geography or weather of their home country) in relation to how that same content manifests itself similarly or differently in their home in the US. In other words, letting the student articulate the connections between his or her prior experiences with scientific concepts builds proficiency of both content and language. Often, homework related to the NGSS concepts can be sent home in the native language to allow for a rich discussion between the student and his or her family--that discourse is an effective way to build mastery of the NGSS.

By connecting the NGSS content to prior knowledge and previous experiences, and by creating meaningful bilingual dialogue with their home support systems, ELL students can meet the demands of the NGSS and be given the same opportunities in science throughout their educational careers that their peers are afforded.


Responses From Readers

Lydia Breiseth:

I would also add these Colorin Colorado articles by Emily Miller, a second- and third-grade ESL and Bilingual Resource Teacher in Madison, Wisconsin and a member of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) Elementary Writing and Diversity & Equity Teams.

Thanks to Maria, Diana, Judy, Lori, Brian, and Laura , and to readers, for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Anyone whose question is selected for weekly column can choose one free book from a number of education publishers.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog -- along with new material -- in an ebook form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Just a reminder -- you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email or RSS Reader... And,if you missed any of the highlights from the first four years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below. They don’t include ones from this current year, but you can find them by clicking on the “answers” category found in the sidebar.

Classroom Management

Student Motivation

Implementing The Common Core

The Best Ways To Begin & End The School Year

Teaching Social Studies

Project-Based Learning

Brain-Based Learning

Using Tech In The Classroom

Parent Engagement In Schools

Teaching English Language Learners

Student Assessment

Teaching Reading & Writing

Education Policy Issues

Differentiating Instruction

Author Interviews

Teaching Math & Science

Professional Development

Teacher & Administrator Leadership

Relationships In Schools

Instructional Strategies

This Year’s Most Popular Q & A Posts!

Look for the next “question-of-the-week in a few days.....

Related Tags:

The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.