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Teaching Opinion

Response: Teaching Science to English Language Learners

By Larry Ferlazzo — January 02, 2016 17 min read
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(This is the first post in a two-part series)

This week’s question is:

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

In addition to having to learn a new language and adapt to a new culture, our English Language Learner students face the challenge of having to learn the content knowledge that is also being taught in classes. Science is obviously one of those content knowledge areas, and the new Next Generation Science Standards add one more wrinkle to teacher’s strategies in making science more accessible to ELLs.

Today, 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.

You might also find my collection, The Best Resources For Teaching The Next Generation Science Standards To English Language Learners, useful, along with previous posts here on Teaching English Language Learners and on Teaching Math & Science,

Response From Alicia Johal

Alicia Johal is currently an 8th grade science teacher and curriculum specialist in San Diego, California. She is a Teacher Leader with the San Diego Science Project and UCSD CREATE who researches, works, and leads teachers in NGSS professional development. She is an Apple Foundations Trainer and Leading Edge Certified Professional Learning Leader who strives to promote creativity, critical thinking and conversation using technology in her science class. To collaborate, connect with @aliciajohal on Twitter:

The Next Generation Science Standards are here and if we are lucky, they are here to stay. NGSS was built with inquiry, modeling and argumentation in mind. NGSS was not built for institutionalized privilege, not for dominant groups, and not for an illustrious middle class of scientists. The Next Generation Science Standards were built for all students. Before you dive into NGSS and before you dive into this piece, let go of previous biases, apprehension, and history in regards to teaching language. These standards are the pot of gold you have been pursuing to support your English Language Learners.

Cultural connections are everything. It’s Monday, school has started and you have bright, curious, and some sleepy eyes staring up at you this morning. You know what you have to teach, you know what is written on the board, you know you have prepared learning objectives and learning targets, you know your content, and you know how much time you have to get this topic done. If this is your thinking - you don’t know anything at all. Stop and ask yourself these questions, instead. Who is in your classroom? Why are they in your classroom? What goals do you have for them? What do they know? What do they need? Where do they come from? What cultures are represented? What languages are being spoken? Culturally relevant teaching is everything. Connect with your students life experience and societal impact and only then should Standards influence your teaching. Whether it’s NGSS, CCSS, or the next standard push, put the content aside and get to know the scientists in your classroom.

Focus on the science and engineering practices. The short and long term English Language Learners in your classroom need to do science. Language development can only come into existence when the content is materialized and made real. With inquiry being a pillar of the new standards, students need to have recurring hands-on labs to build language development. By providing opportunities for students to explore and engage, teachers are setting students up for science to be real life. Whether it’s at the beginning, the end, or the middle of your unit, there must be multiple opportunities for the students to engage and do in science. Revamp your lesson for tomorrow by adding in a kinesthetic component.

Argue their findings using evidence. It has never been more apparent that arguing from evidence is a necessity with the NGSS, and in life. We can all remember a time when somebody accused us of doing something we did not do. If you’re like me, you argued back until your point was proven, using evidence to prove your honesty. Students at all age levels need to practice the art of argumentation. Start easy with warm up questions that students are interested in. For example; “What time should the school day start?” “What type of Mexican dish is the most delicious?” “What soccer team should Cristiano Ronaldo go to next?” Use AVID strategies like Philosophical Chairs or Socratic Seminar for students to practice using their voice in a safe, structured, and fun environment.

Use models as often as possible. True inquiry has to be mentally and physically engaging. Stimulating the minds of English Language Learners in your classroom can and should be done with models as often as possible. Nobody says you have to go out and buy fancy toys and rockets, instead - use what you already have. Have something for them to feel and move every day - even if it is as simple as flashcards and scissors. Teaching the solar system? Give your students cups, rubber bands, a crayon, string and some random household objects to see what they come up with to build their own model of the solar system. There is no right answer or right way to explain one’s thinking - so do not force your ELLs into a preconceived image of what mastery is.

Don’t give them the answer, let your students struggle and take risks. The Next Generation Science Standards are meant for risk taking, questioning, struggling, and achieving. As a teacher your heart wants to give every child your best self, and with NGSS, your best self knows about wait time. If you ask a question to your ELLs and they seem confused, give them time to communicate (in their language of choice) with a partner or group, and then ask again. Repeat this as many times as you need to. Support your students by being there, but do not enable your students by rushing. Pace yourself and your instruction to give your students an opportunity to really think.

Have a conversation at school about student diversity and equity. Our classrooms are becoming more diverse every day. Do you know how many students are classified at your school as English Language Learners? Do you know if your numbers are increasing or decreasing? What supports at school are available for all students to succeed? Equity is giving each child what they need to succeed. Are you giving enough? If you are overwhelmed by these questions, start small. Find a colleague you trust at school and look at cum folders for your ELLs. What trends are you noticing? Can you get your department on board? What language supports (word walls, sentence starters, graphic organizers) are a part of your classroom? Your classroom culture can impact your school culture, so let me ask you - where are you taking your students today?

Collaborate with other departments at school with Crosscutting Concepts. The phrase “it takes a village” rings ever so loudly when it comes to the Next Generation Science Standards. The target here is to teach students how to inquire, communicate, and argue scientifically. The ambition here is to get your entire school to ride on your Magic Schoolbus. Have an informal PD after school to let other teachers in on your new framework. Support from ELA and Math is crucial with CCSS being implemented thoroughly. Begin by using the Crosscutting Concepts to design problem and project based learning goals with other departments. Show them the connections to their content area first; showing the topical arrangement or performance expectations might be an overwhelming beginning. Start the conversation at your school, and start it early.

Response From Maria Montalvo-Balbed & Donna Barrett-Williams

Maria Montalvo-Balbed is the ELL Director at the Metropolitan Regional Educational Service Agency (Metro RESA) in Georgia and a member of the ASCD Faculty, where she works with schools and districts to implement customized, research-based curricula and instructional strategies. Dr. Donna Barrett-Williams is a Science Specialist with Metro RESA:

Communicating within the context of the Science standards is at the core of getting ELs to practice using the language of Science to communicate ideas. The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) identifies science and engineering practices, crosscutting concepts, and content. NGSS were built upon a vision for quality science education for ALL students. The NGSS emphasize:

  • A “three-dimensional” learning approach in which students simultaneously engage in science & engineering practices (e.g., engaging in argument from evidence) while learning and applying core ideas (i.e., content standards) and crosscutting concepts (i.e., big ideas like patterns) as they explain real-world phenomena and solve meaningful problems.
  • Understanding scientific concepts and not just memorizing them
  • Connecting scientific principles to real-world situations, supporting engaging and relevant content and evidence-based investigations, models, and arguments
  • Developing contextual understanding of science knowledge and solutions, helping students to become better informed and well-equipped citizens

The NGSS complement the TESOL standards which emphasize Ells must be engaged in intentional language practices of receptive (listening and reading) as well as productive language (writing and speaking) within the Science classroom. The students are learning the language of Science at the same time that they are learning about the Next Generation Science standards. Teachers purposefully set up language practice for the students to learn to ask questions, define problems, plan and carry out investigations, analyze and interpret data, construct explanations, design solutions, argue from evidence, obtain, evaluate, and communicate information in context with appropriate language support where necessary (tesol international association, 2014)

Several resources for implementing the NGSS with ELLs are:

  • Next Generation Science Standards includes sample task, searchable index and learning progressions for the practices, crosscutting concepts, and core ideas
  • Appendix D of the NGSS includes resources and case studies to address needs of diverse learners, including ELLs. provide resources to engage all students in the standards
  • The National Science Teachers Association website has books and journal articles
  • The Understanding Language website from Stanford

The most important message is that ALL students, especially ELLs need to be engaged in this “three dimensional” approach to learning. Through engagement in the practices, crosscutting concepts and content, ELLs are engaged in developing the receptive practices and productive language development. It is important for ELLs as well as all students to be actively engaged as learners. This includes developing models, engaging in evidence based arguments, and analyzing data. Strategies such as providing visual representations, sentence starters to assist with writing, and scaffolded experiences can provide important layers of support for ELLs. The key is engaging in students in authentic experience and finding ways to help them make sense of science concepts.

Achieve. (2013). Next Generation Science Standards

Lee, O., H. Quinn, and G. Valdés. 2013. Science and language for English language learners in relation to Next Generation Science Standards and with implications for Common Core State Standards for English language arts and mathematics. Educational Researcher 42 (4): 223-233.

Response From Caleb Cheung, Laura Prival , and Claudio Vargas

Caleb Cheung (Science Manager), Laura Prival (Elementary Science Specialist), and Claudio Vargas (Elementary Science Coordinator) are district-level educators in the Oakland Unified School District in Oakland, California (Editor’s note: They have also contributed a chapter on teaching science to an upcoming book Katie Hull Sypnieski and I have co-authored, Navigating The Common Core With English Language Learners):

Science, Language, and Equity

As many states shift toward the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), it is imperative that we as educators look closely at how we are providing equitable opportunities for all of our students to do and learn science. In Appendix D of the NGSS, “All Standards, All Students,” the writers make the case that these new standards and expectations are intended for every child in each of our classrooms. This means that all students must be able to do and learn science. To achieve this goal, we must provide students and teachers with the tools to make science an engaging and equitable mechanism for learning.

Equity and teaching equitably go beyond making sure that all students have access to standards-aligned science instruction. To teach in an equitable way means that educators understand, value, and teach to the strengths, challenges, prior knowledge, and life experiences that each student brings to the classroom. It means holding high expectations for all students, believing that every student can succeed, and providing students with the supports they need to achieve success.

Many of the students here in the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) are English Language Learners (ELLs) or Emergent Bilinguals. We consider their bilingual status to be a great asset that brings diversity and richness to our classrooms, and will serve them well throughout their lives. Many of our teachers know that language development can only be successfully accomplished through content learning, and the OUSD Science and ELLMA (English Language Learner and Multilingual Achievement) departments are working together to support them. Through high expectations, engaging content, appropriate and flexible scaffolds, and formative assessment, students’ scientific understanding and language abilities flourish.

Consider a recent science lesson in a second grade classroom, where students were observing slight differences in the same species of beetle to learn about variation. As they recorded their observations of the beetles crawling across the plate in front of them, students produced authentic writing, not cookie-cutter responses. As a language support, the teacher offered a small menu of flexible prompts; students were encouraged to write independently, but if stuck, were able to choose appropriate prompts that helped them communicate their ideas. All students in the classroom are deeply engaged in science while working on their language development, and close to two-thirds of this class are ELLs.

In addition to providing students with useful scaffolds, teachers are using formative assessment in science as a tool for equitable instruction. For example, by paying closer attention to the content and practices expressed in students’ science notebooks teachers are able to notice how students’ conceptual understanding is developing. Using this strategy, teachers are better able to individualize instruction and make science accessible to all students. Recently, through a close look at her students’ notebook entries, one teacher noticed that some students weren’t able to express the concept of adaptation because the terms “structure” and “function” were unclear to them. A quick retooling of her next lesson to create a class chart with both the scientific language and more common synonyms along with picture examples quickly enabled students to comprehend and express the concepts. In this way, formative assessment ensures that all students have equitable access to deep science learning.

In Oakland, we are working to raise the profile of Appendix D and infuse its content throughout the implementation of the NGSS, thereby making equity in science education central to our work. As educators, we must equate “good science teaching” with “equitable science teaching.” We are not doing our job of supporting science instruction unless we consider daily how to ensure that every student has the opportunity to succeed in science.


NGSS Lead States. (2013). Next Generation Science Standards: For States, by States. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

Additional Resource

NGSS Appendix D Case Studies. (2013).

Response From Ariane Huddleston

Ariane Huddleston writes the education blog The Science Penguin and creates science instructional resources for thousands of teachers. She worked with English Language Learners while teaching 5th grade in Central Texas:

I’ve often heard that the strategies employed with English Language Learners (ELLs) are helpful for all learners. Based on my experience, I believe it to be true. Appendix D-"All Standards, All Students” provides us with 5 areas where teachers can support ELLs. In this response, I am addressing two of those areas: language support strategies with ELLs and discourse strategies with ELLs. I have found that four particular language support and discourse strategies are essential when planning my science units.

  1. Multiple modes of representation

Students express their ideas using movement, graphic organizers, pictures, text, diagrams, physical or computer models, or oral communication. ELLs may use gestures to represent how a natural event occurs, use a graphic organizer to sequence events, draw a picture or diagram to record observations, develop a model, or explain their understanding in words.

  1. Media

Provide students with real-life examples, animations, and interactive experiences that show how things work and how patterns occur in the natural world. A video clip provides an animated model of how a hydroelectric dam operates. Before studying Earth’s changes, you can ask students to bring photos of landforms to share with the class. To learn about how we can use patterns to transfer information, students can utilize an interactive website to learn and practice Morse code.

  1. Hands-on vocabulary instruction

For vocabulary instruction, provide students with a familiarizing activity before assigning new terms. To teach students vocabulary related to force and motion, the teacher could provide students with materials to make a roller coaster for a marble. While they are working on the project, the teacher informally teaches students academic vocabulary to help them describe their observations. During a group discussion following the activity, the teacher and students reinforce the vocabulary and delve more into the meaning. Then, students follow up by using new vocabulary to record their observations in their science notebooks.

  1. Multiple opportunities to communicate

Students who are learning English need many chances to speak, listen, read, and write. Allow students to work in small groups. Provide sentence stems for discussions. Give students time to write or draw their ideas and explain them to a partner before sharing aloud to the class. After asking students a question, have them turn and talk about the question with a partner.

While there are many possible ways to successfully implement NGSS with ELLs, I recommend using multiple modes of representations and media and providing hands-on vocabulary instruction and multiple opportunities to communicate. These techniques will not only benefit your ELLs, they will benefit all learners.

Thanks to Alicia, Maria, Donna, Caleb, Laura, Claudio and Ariane 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. I’ll be including responses from readers in Part Two.

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