ERIC Identifier: ED357113
Publication Date: 1993-03-00
Author: Sutman, Francis X. - And Others
Clearinghouse on Urban Education New York NY.
Teaching Science Effectively to Limited English Proficient
Students. ERIC/CUE Digest, Number 87.
A quality science education is essential to the future success of all
students, as is proficiency in the English language. Since limited English
proficient (LEP) students learn English skills most effectively when they are
taught across the curriculum, it is especially productive to integrate science
and English teaching. An integrated curriculum that teaches science in a way
that is understandable and meaningful to multicultural students, as it promotes
increased English language proficiency, can be developed for students at all
educational levels, and does not require teachers with knowledge of the
students' native languages.
While much of the science curricula currently in use is not effective for LEP
students, new teaching methods and curricula are being developed that show great
promise in their ability to provide students with a good education in both
science and English. This digest discusses and provides examples of these
innovations. It also presents two reference lists: one offers general references
of use to teachers and administrators, the other includes specific examples of
instructional materials for use with students.
CURRENT SCIENCE ACHIEVEMENT STATUS OF LEP STUDENTS
with large Hispanic/LEP and other minority populations have habitually clustered
these students into low ability tracks without consideration of their actual
abilities or potential for academic success. The result of this discriminatory
practice is the severe underrepresentation of minorities in advanced science and
mathematics classes, and thus, in careers requiring advanced level science or
In fact, although the overall high school completion rate among all 25- to
29-year-olds was nearly 80 percent during the 1977-90 period, for Hispanics it
was only 60 percent. During the same period, the number of Hispanics who
received college degrees in the sciences, compared with other racial and ethnic
groups, dropped significantly and continuously. Further, while African Americans
and Hispanics constitute 10 and 7 percent of the total professional workforce,
respectively, the representation of each group in the scientific workforce is
only 2 percent. This disproportionate representation is damaging not only to the
future well-being of the minorities denied science careers, but to the nation as
a whole, which cannot afford to waste any available talent if all its
technological needs are to be met.
EARLY SCIENCE EDUCATION AND ENGLISH LANGUAGE
Urban schools have a higher than average number of students with
disadvantaged home environments that can compromise their ability to learn, and
they also have large numbers of LEP students. A preschool science curriculum
that includes English instruction can help young children overcome many
obstacles to learning, however, and can prepare them for further effective
Such a curriculum must help young students make connections between their
generation and those of the past for them to learn most successfully. Therefore,
to best stimulate children's intellectual development, schools need to acquire a
surer feel for contemporary cultural conditions. School professionals must
become familiar with the diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds of their
students in order to draw on these differences to make instruction more
meaningful and relevant. Below, a few examples of appropriate curricula are
with Plant and Animal Life. In particular, preschool students enjoy and learn
from an environment that includes live animals and plants. They learn to respond
to stimuli and to improve their language skills as they observe and handle
living things, some of which may be an integral part of their native culture.
Naturally motivated to describe, discuss, and compare plant and animal
characteristics and behavior, nursery school children can readily overcome
inhibitions to learning. They can also transfer the expanded knowledge of their
own language gained through science activities to English. Moreover, experiences
with description lay the groundwork for understanding the more abstract ideas
presented in later science instruction.
and Health Instruction. Learning about effective nutrition and health through
the observation of the results of the various diets of living organisms
increases young students' science knowledge as it encourages better eating
habits. Simple experiments such as demonstrating the variety of types of sugars
in nature, not only the kind produced from cane pique children's interest and
provide information on the benefits (and costs) of eating certain categories of
food. For students from homes where good nutrition is not stressed, knowledge
about readily available, healthful, and inexpensive foods, if they act on it
when they are able, can have a direct impact on their health, and, thus, on
their ability to learn.
K-12 SCIENCE EDUCATION AND ENGLISH LANGUAGE PROFICIENCY
At the elementary level, science, with its opportunities for hands-on
experiences that allow students to see and feel the meaning of words instead of
just hearing the definitions, is an excellent vehicle for second language
development. In high school, proficiency in the language of instruction can be
developed as science content is taught. Several premises are especially
important to teaching science and English language skills simultaneously to LEP
content taught to LEP students should be the same as content taught to the other
students. Science comprises the descriptions developed over time to explain how
and why the environment operates as it does, and these understandings are
universal, not more or less appropriate for members of certain cultures or
races. In addition, universal access to an advanced science education is
necessary to ensure equitable access to science career opportunities.
examples relevant to LEP students should be used to illustrate science content.
An easy way to make science relevant to students is to point out the role it
plays in their everyday lives. Explaining how water gets into their faucets and
how heat gets into their radiators are two examples. Using students' own diets
to explain the food chain and referring to agricultural practices in their
native countries also personalize learning. Students should be encouraged to
draw examples from their lives as a way of sharing information with students
from different backgrounds, validating their own experiences, and learning to
communicate in English.
In addition, it is important to point out language and other minority
scientists who have made significant contributions to scientific knowledge in
the U.S. Doing so promotes admiration by all students for the accomplishments of
people of many different backgrounds. Equally important, it provides students
who share the culture of the scientists with a role model and, thus, with the
hope they, too, can have a successful career in science.
instruction is most effective when the content is organized around common
themes. The themes can be broad science concepts such as the nature of matter or
magnetic energy; or they can be societal issues such as the pollution and
purification of water or the impact of drugs on the physiology and behavior of
living organisms. This approach puts scientific knowledge in a comprehensible
context with relevance to students' lives, which increases the probability that
students will continue to want to learn science and language on their own;
extends the time over which a single topic is studied, allowing more time for
understanding and reflection, and for repetition in the use of the English
vocabulary; and reduces the propensity to overcrowd the curriculum with complex
content and vocabulary.
Effective instructional strategies for curricula based on themes include
hands-on experience in a cooperative learning environment. In addition, multiple
references are needed, rather than a single textbook, so students learn the
value of investigating and comparing a variety of sources in order to learn, and
are exposed to many types of writing and a larger English vocabulary.
language development must be an integral objective of all science instruction.
It is important to incorporate vocabulary development into science lessons both
to ensure that students understand the science and to improve their English
skills. Teachers should review the English terms or names to be used in a lesson
before it is begun; help students label with stickers items to be used in an
experiment; and verbally describe what they are doing, using language
appropriate to the students' proficiency level. They should follow up by asking
students to repeat the activity and describe it in their own words.
One way for students to develop English language skills is for them to carry
out investigations within a group of students with varying levels of English
proficiency, and to engage in follow through activities that motivate them to
use English. Examples of such activities include writing summaries of the
procedures used and results of their investigations, preparing a verbal
presentation on it, and drawing a picture of it and explaining the picture in
writing or verbally. Group activities include writing and producing a play,
including English language prompt cards.
Many science trade books discuss specific topics or present biographies of
scientists for students at all education and English proficiency levels. After
students read these, teachers should lead a discussion, pose and ask for
questions, and in general integrate promotion of English comprehension and
language development with learning the content of the books.
A major goal of science
instruction is to develop students' ability to interpret and apply what they
have learned. While simply memorizing facts can earn students good grades on
standardized tests, and traditional teaching methods focus on providing students
with those discrete facts, real learning requires the ability to understand, not
just to repeat, course material. Thus, instructional techniques must stress
development of thinking skills as well as acquisition of science information.
Instructional Classroom Organization. Research and experience have demonstrated
that the classroom organization strategy most effective for teaching science to
LEP students is cooperative learning because it fosters language development
through inter-student (and possibly written) communication. In classrooms where
LEP students have varying degrees of English language proficiency or come from
different language backgrounds, the groups should reflect these variations as
much as possible.
To assure maximum involvement of all students within each group, each student
should be assigned a specific task (i.e., chief experimenter, observer,
recorder, mathematician). Tasks should be rotated among the students from lesson
to lesson to provide each student with the opportunity for varied contributions
and experiences. If translators are needed, this role should be assigned to the
students with proficiency in the primary language or in English. Students should
be given ample opportunity to make choices and decisions, within the groups and
personally, about how to organize their projects. They should be encouraged to
evaluate their own work, to challenge each other's explanations and approaches
within the group, and to discuss coursework with the teacher.
Instruction. In a discovery environment, students have the opportunity to find
the answers to the questions they themselves pose about a topic. They develop
their English language skills as they articulate the problems they have devised
and their efforts to solve them, and they learn to learn on their own. Students
should also be given ample opportunities to test their own ideas. Ideally,
teachers should provide a variety of resources to support students' discovery
activities: materials for science laboratory investigations; reference books,
newspapers and magazines, and access to libraries for additional materials;
classroom visits from specialists in the community; field trips; films; and
Lectures and demonstrations by teachers should be limited to use as summaries
of what has been covered. They should not be used to convey new information
because the purpose of the inquiry/discovery technique is for students to find
out science information through their own efforts.
In order to provide students with the opportunity to think about and apply
science concepts and to formulate complete thoughts in English, teachers should
pose open-ended questions for them to answer. Assistance can take the form of
providing references, helping students to use English to express their questions
and answers; and helping them develop investigations that will lead to answers.
Also, teachers should take care to use complete sentences, appropriate diction,
and correct grammar. While this approach may result in coverage of less content,
students will have a deeper understanding of the material that is covered, and
will, ultimately, learn more because they learned not only some science concepts
but also how to problem solve.
The inquiry/discovery method of science teaching is like the whole or natural
language approach to teaching a new language. Whole language instruction
deemphasizes pure memorization of language, stressing instead language skill
development and comprehension through use of the language in a real world
setting. Here, that setting is the science classroom.
It should be noted that the more traditional way of teaching science is the
lecture/discussion method, where teachers tell the students what they are to
learn, and then ask them to answer questions about what they heard, frequently
providing the answers themselves if students don't respond quickly enough. This
approach limits the learning experience for all students, for it gives them very
little opportunity to discuss issues, solve problems, or ask their own
questions, and, thus, to develop thinking skills. It is even less effective for
LEP students since it is more dependent on students' understanding of what the
teacher says, and it provides few occasions for students to speak, and, thus,
practice their English skills.
As discussed above, curricula should help
students understand the ways that science exists in their lives and promote
English language proficiency. Coursework can expand students' learning potential
in ways such as these:
Science and Mathematics Teaching. As students pose and solve science problems,
they will naturally require use of mathematics, so combining instruction in both
subjects, along with English language skills development, reinforces learning of
each. It is especially important for students to use mathematics to answer
questions arising from their coursework; solving math problems they themselves
have created will help them better appreciate math's practical usefulness.
Further, integration of science, mathematics, and English language learning
obviates the need for the common and fragmented English as a Second Language or
remedial math "pull-out" instruction that is less effective and stigmatizing for
with Computers. Science and mathematics learning is an excellent context for
teaching the computer skills likely to be needed in the work world. Computers
can simulate ideas that otherwise are very abstract and, thus, difficult to
understand, and experiences and experiments too dangerous to engage in firsthand
or requiring unavailable resources. Computers should not be used to substitute
totally for hands-on experiences, however, for students need to see at least
some science in action for it to be meaningful to them. Moreover, research has
shown that computer instruction is most effective after students have had some
IMPLEMENTING THE INNOVATIONS
Training. Since most teachers are educated to use the lecture/discussion
instructional method, to help them switch to an emphasis on inquiry/discovery,
they should be provided with inservice training, and, perhaps, with mentors who
are already skilled in the method. The National Science Foundation is supporting
training and enhancement programs to help teachers master the method.
New curriculum materials based on the inquiry/discovery method are currently
being developed, some with support from the National Science Foundation. Old
curricula should be reviewed to determine whether the English language
readability level is too high for LEP students, and revised as necessary.
Involvement. Additional parent involvement may be required as parents are asked
to provide materials and references at home, and to accompany their children's
classes on field trips.
A substantial effort to revise approaches to assessing students is underway
nationally, for reasons that include bias in traditional assessments against LEP
and other minority students. Traditionally, multiple choice standardized tests
and poorly constructed classroom tests have measured students' ability to
memorize science facts rather than their ability to understand and apply them.
LEP students usually receive low scores on such tests, and, as a result, they
are unlikely to continue their science education. Thus, use of testing as a
"gatekeeper" to determine which students are permitted to pursue advanced
science studies must be eliminated if LEP students are to have such access.
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