Opportunities and Challenges for ELLs in the Science Inquiry Classroom (Part 1)

Professional Books: Science Instruction for ELLs

Good science starts with a question. Using inquiry science, children discover answers to their questions in the same way that scientists do — with experiments, predictions, observations, and conjectures.

In this excerpt from Chapter 4 of Becoming Scientists: Inquiry-Based Teaching in Diverse Classrooms, Grades 3-5, Rusty Bresser and Sharon Fargason describe some of the opportunities and challenges that ELLs may face in an inquiry classroom and offer guidelines for identifying important academic language features in a lesson. The approaches described are designed to engage students in the practices outlined in the .


Many factors contribute to a classroom's diversity. These include race, culture, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, learning styles, varied experiences and background knowledge, support from home, skill level, readiness, behavior, and students' proficiency level in English. Because they are among the fastest-growing demographic group of students in the United States, teaching English language learners (ELLs) has become a big challenge for teachers as they try to find ways to make content comprehensible and help students use English to communicate their understanding of the core content areas of mathematics, social studies, and science.

Just as diversity comes in many different forms in the classroom, English learners as a group are diverse as well. ELLs vary widely by level of schooling, parents' level of education, parents' proficiency in English, proficiency and literacy in their native language, and proficiency in English. Some English learners have had limited access to education, and some have experienced war firsthand or lived in refugee camps. Most ELLs are born in the United States, but the level of English spoken in their homes varies considerably (Wright 2010).

The students in Sharon's class are mostly English learners, but they are different from one another in many ways. For example, Diana is a student from Burma who is at the beginning level of English proficiency according to California's English Language Development Test (CELDT). She has had limited access to public education in her home country and struggles with academic content.

Rafael was born in the United States, but his parents do not speak English. Although he is making good progress in school, his proficiency in English is at an intermediate level. Carlos is a gifted student whose English skills are advanced. His parents are bilingual and speak to him in both English and Spanish at home. These three students are examples of the range of experiences, backgrounds, and levels of proficiency that Sharon must consider when she plans and teaches her science lessons.

Challenges Language Learners Face During Inquiry Science

When engaged in inquiry science, children must use language to make a prediction or a hypothesis. They use language when talking to a friend about how they'll set up an experiment. And they use language when they are reading about batteries, reflecting on the outcome of an investigation, writing about the conclusions they draw, or pondering new questions they have.

Language can be a powerful learning tool during inquiry, promoting the understanding of science concepts (Rosebery, Warren, and Conant 1992). But when the language of instruction is unfamiliar to a student, English language learners can experience challenges that may create roadblocks to learning. These challenges are reflected in their scores on science achievement tests, which are well below that of their native English-speaking counterparts (Next Generation Science Standards Writing Team 2012).

English language learners face a triple challenge during science instruction. They must learn everyday vocabulary, content-specific vocabulary, and the language structures that are used when engaged in inquiry, such as formulating hypotheses, drawing conclusions, making inferences, and asking questions.

The language of science can be confusing for English language learners because it uses many words from everyday life that have different meanings. For example, students may know that they eat off of a plate, but in science, plate tectonics has quite a different meaning. The same is true of the words cell (as in cell phone), tissue (something to use when you sneeze), and organ (an instrument). All of these words have meanings in everyday life that are different from the way they are used in science (Wright 2010).

To create an equitable learning environment for English language learners during inquiry, teachers must be aware of their students' proficiency levels in English and determine the language demands of science lessons to plan for appropriate support during instruction. English language learners are entitled to high-quality language and content instruction so that they can use English to learn science and use science as a context for learning English. When we teach science, we are also teaching English, not just teaching in English.

Determining the Academic Language Demands of a Science Lesson

When planning a science lesson, Sharon analyzes the language that students will be reading, writing, listening to, and having to produce. If students have to read from their science textbook or a piece of nonfiction, Sharon reads the text ahead of time, looking for any text features that might pose problems for her English learners. She asks herself many questions as she thinks about the language demands of the reading:

  • Are there tricky definitions that might need to be discussed or recast in more accessible ways?
  • Are there grammatical forms that might be challenging to readers, such as the conditional tense: What might happen if an earthquake occurs in a large city?
  • Are there long, complex sentences that might need to be broken down into shorter sentences for the students?
  • Are there idiomatic phrases that may be unfamiliar? Are there captions in the text that students might need to pay particular attention to?
  • Are there transition words used (unless, although, finally, because, consequently, therefore), and will students need to learn what they indicate (Cloud, Genesee, and Hamayan 2009)?

Sharon also thinks about key vocabulary that her students might need to understand and use during inquiry. For example, when planning a unit on energy, Sharon determines what:

  • everyday words students will need to know and use (such as rubber band, wire, flashlight, Styrofoam, paper, battery)
  • content-specific vocabulary they will need to learn (such as electricity, conductor, energy, insulator).

As she thinks about when and how she will teach the terms, Sharon draws from a variety of strategies that make the vocabulary accessible and easier to learn. These include:

  • making use of realia or concrete materials to demonstrate usage (for example, using a real flashlight when introducing the word)
  • creating an illustrated vocabulary chart to help students visualize the words
  • using familiar synonyms for academic terms (for example, see-through for transparent)
  • making students aware of cognates, which are words in English that sound similar in a student's native language (for example, the word atomos is Spanish for atoms).

In addition to using these strategies to explicitly teach vocabulary, Sharon models using the words in context and has her students repeat them for practice.

The academic language that students must learn and use during inquiry science is not restricted to vocabulary. Students must also use the vocabulary in complete sentences to say something about their learning. So if a student is learning about minerals and wants to compare two different ones, she will need to know some describing words (black, white, rough, smooth) and be able to use them to compare the minerals (mineral A is white and smooth, whereas mineral B is black and rough).

In other words, the student is using the vocabulary for a purpose: to compare minerals. In science, students use language during inquiry for a variety of purposes: to describe, compare, hypothesize, predict, sequence, categorize or classify, explain, analyze, draw conclusions, ask and answer questions, estimate, persuade, and identify. Whenever we ask children to read something, say something, write something, or listen to our directions or a procedure during inquiry science, we are placing a language demand on them for which they may need extra support, depending upon their level of proficiency in English.

Setting Content and Language Objectives

When planning a science lesson, Sharon thinks about content and language as interconnected, because we use language to learn about science concepts, and we use science contexts to develop language. "Just as language (development) cannot occur if we only focus on subject matter, content knowledge cannot grow if we only focus on learning the English language" (Hill and Flynn 2006, 22).

When students use communication to make sense of the world, and when they talk or write about their learning, it gives the teacher a window into their thinking. Are their ideas correct? Do they hold naïve conceptions about a concept? Do their ideas hold merit? Language is an important learning tool and a key assessment tool. When Sharon thinks about the science content she will teach, she considers the language that students will use to show that they have learned the content. To help her provide the right support for students, she first sets a science-content objective (guided by the overall science standard or goal for the lesson), and then she thinks of a language objective that supports the content objective.

Example: Energy lesson

For example, for one of the lessons in a unit on energy, Sharon knew that students would be learning about different sources of energy (the science-content objective). She also knew that students would be thinking about, talking about, and then writing about what they think energy is. Because Sharon knew that her students would need to describe where energy comes from and what it is, she set a language objective: "Students will orally and in writing describe energy and where it comes from."

Setting a language objective focuses Sharon's attention on the purpose for using language in a lesson (in this case, the purpose was describing). Setting a language objective also guides Sharon when she thinks about the support students will need when using language. In the lesson on energy, Sharon offered her students a simple writing prompt—Energy is …—to help them get started on their writing. The idea for the prompt flowed directly from the language objective.

Example: Pendulum lesson

In another lesson, on pendulums, Sharon's content objective was "Students will conduct multiple trials to test a prediction in a pendulum experiment." Her language objective, which supported the content objective, was "Students will make predictions about the pendulums orally and in writing." Writing a language objective helped Sharon focus on the purpose for using language in the lesson (making predictions), thereby helping her plan for linguistic support.

Example: Mineral lesson

For a lesson on minerals, Sharon had to teach the following big idea or science standard over the course of a week: "Students know how to compare the physical properties of different kinds of rocks and know that a rock is composed of different combinations of minerals." The lesson she was going to teach that day from the rocks and minerals unit engaged students in performing tests.

Sharon's content objective was "Students will perform a variety of tests to learn about the properties of minerals." Her language objective, which supported the content objective, was "Students will use key vocabulary to describe and compare the properties of minerals orally and in writing." The language objective for the lesson helped Sharon focus on what she wanted students to talk and write about during the lesson so that they would meet the content objective. It also helped guide her in creating the support students would need to describe and compare the minerals.

Native English speakers are able to perform the language functions of describing, predicting, and comparing when prompted with questions such as, Can you describe what energy is and where it comes from? What do you predict will happen when you perform the experiment with the pendulum? How does mineral A compare with mineral B? English language learners may understand the content of the lesson, but their inexperience with the language can keep them from articulating what they know.

It is also possible that their struggles with the language of instruction lead them to partial or inaccurate understandings of the content. Until they verbalize their understandings, what they have learned or not learned remains a mystery to the teacher and may even be unclear to the students themselves. Choosing a language objective or language function that matches the science-content objective makes the learning more observable to the teacher and the student (Bresser, Melanese, and Sphar 2009).

Setting a content objective helps the teacher think about the science content she needs to focus on. Setting an accompanying language objective serves to highlight the language students will use during the lesson to indicate whether they are learning the science. Setting a language objective also guides the teacher in planning strategies that will support students when they communicate during inquiry.

This article continues in Part 2, Communication and Language Strategies for the Science Inquiry Classroom.


Bresser, R. and Fargason, S. (2013)."Supporting English Language Learners in the Diverse Classroom." Becoming Scientists: Inquiry-Based Teaching in Diverse Classrooms, Grades 3-5. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers. Pgs. 61-74. Reprinted with permission.


Bresser, Rusty, Melanese, Kathy, and Sphar, Christine. 2009. Supporting English Language Learners in Math Class. Sausalito, CA: Math Solutions.

Cloud, Nancy, Genesee, Fred, and Hamayan, Else. 2009. Literacy Instruction for English Language Learners: A Teacher's Guide to Research-Based Practices. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Delpit, Lisa. 1999. Other People's Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom. New York: The New Press.

Hill, Jane, and Flynn, Kathleen M. 2006. Classroom Instruction That Works with English Language Learners. Alexandria, VA: Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Next Generation Science Standards Writing Team. 2012. Next Generation Science Standards. Washington, DC: National Academies Press. www.nextgenscience.org.

Rosebery, Ann S., Warren, Beth, and Conant, Faith R. 1992. "Appropriating Scientific Discourse: Findings from Language Minority Classrooms." Journal of Research in Science Teaching 33: 569-600.

Wright, Wayne E. 2010. Foundations for Teaching English Language Learners: Research, Theory, Policy, and Practice. Philadelphia: Caslon.


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