Rethinking Language Goals in Science with Three-Dimensional Learning

In this article written for Colorín Colorado, Emily Miller and Rita MacDonald offer guidance on creating appropriate language goals for science instruction.

As a science teacher working with English Language Learners (ELLs), I've sometimes found that developing and implementing language goals for ELL students can be clunky and confining. The focus on traditionally written language goals inserts a certain resistance into my lessons. The goals revolve around a teacher-led agenda that is often unrelated to the organic and student-centered process of sense-making, and they interfere with, rather than foster, the authentic discourse I need my students to engage in during science.

Language goals are developed ahead of time, so they cannot respond to the authentic in-the-moment goals the students themselves have for their own language. For example, one of my students claimed that lightning is responsible for the leaves changing colors and dropping in the fall, and he needed his classmates to understand and respond to his idea. My language goal for this student, "Students can use 'and' and 'but' to join two smaller ideas when summarizing science ideas", interfered with — rather than supported — the student-centered process of sense-making that was underway. The goal did not support growth through my student's own in-the-moment need for language.

When faced with this obstacle, I realized that perhaps I needed to look at the question of language goals (also called language objectives) a little differently. One approach that came to mind was the concept of learning in three dimensions.

Both the Framework for K-12 Science Education and the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) view science learning as developing in three dimensions, one of which (scientific and engineering practices) is very language-intensive. Because language is necessary for successful engagement in the scientific practices, a focus on these practices provides opportunities for students to develop the scientific practices and language simultaneously.

It is helpful to frame this connection with these guiding questions:

  • Do traditional language goals for ELLs interfere with student agency when participating in science?
  • How can three-dimensional learning shift our thinking around science learning and language goals?

Before I explain how I applied this model to my student's claim that lightning changes the color of the leaves, I will provide some background on three-dimensional learning.

Three-Dimensional Learning

The Framework for K-12 Science Education, which guided the development of NGSS, moved away from focusing on isolated facts and procedures in science education. Together, these documents articulate a three-dimensional model and comprehensive approach. Three-dimensional learning is a continuous interweaving of three elements that develops simultaneously over time: scientific and engineering core ideas, practices, and crosscutting concepts.

As such, none of the dimensions works in isolation; they must be leveraged in concert for the purpose of constructing knowledge in the science classroom. Three-dimensional learning engages students deeply in not only the important ideas of science and engineering but in the doing of science. It is this focus on the doing of science that presents a new opportunity to help students develop the language of science.

Disciplinary core ideas

Core ideas are the big ideas in science, similar to what we have traditionally referred to as science content. In three-dimensional learning, the students develop these core ideas as they engage in the practices. For example, students develop the idea of erosion by being immersed in observing the effects of water flow on the land. This is a marked contrast to the traditional way of starting a unit by presenting the scientific idea and then using practices (investigating, developing models) to confirm the ideas that have already been presented, which has resulted in a narrow body of knowledge that isn't generative. The traditional method has rendered students unable to use those science ideas in a new context.

Crosscutting concepts

Crosscutting concepts refer to a set of lenses (patterns, cause and effect, systems, and systems models) that scientists use implicitly and that students must be taught explicitly. Like the core ideas of science, these concepts must also be developed within the context of sense-making. A student who can use the crosscutting concept can apply the lens of cause and effect to explain a host of phenomena, from explaining the sustainability of an ecosystem for native species of insects, to developing a molecular model of the release of energy during a chemical reaction.

Scientific practices: "Doing" Science

The practices in the Framework and the NGSS mirror the practices scientists use in their careers, and play a central role in what it means to know and do science. Across the grades, students engage in the practices in increasingly sophisticated ways. The practices position students to collaboratively make sense of the natural world in every grade. Will students be exploring the evidence to develop a claim about what is happening? Or will they look for patterns in the data?

Whatever the practice, students will be engaging in it together, questioning, asking for clarification, building off each other's ideas and revising these ideas based on their shared sense-making. The science and engineering practices frame the doing of science as a collaborative, discourse-rich activity that positions students as co-constructors of scientific understanding of the natural world. The practices provide teachers a rich opportunity to support students' language development, particularly in four of the practices that I discuss in more detail in my article Next Generation Science Standards: Offering Equitable Opportunities for ELLs to Engage in Science.

Using language in three-dimensional learning

When students engage in the scientific practices to develop a collaborative, evidence-based explanation of a phenomenon, they use language to:

  • examine ideas about natural phenomena
  • make their ideas understood
  • analyze, dispute, refine and build off each other's ideas

The collaborative exploration of phenomena and the shared development of ideas becomes a powerful engine that drives language development.

If we frame science education as facilitating students' co-constructed understanding of the natural world, it becomes clear that engagement in the language-intensive practices is a critical part of doing science. Most importantly, this engagement in collaborative sense-making helps students develop both their science understanding and their language. How can we leverage this opportunity for language development — and what does this look like in the classroom?

More Authentic Language Learning Goals

The three dimensions of the NGSS support the formation of new rich and authentic science learning goals by combining the three dimensions into one performance goal that defines what student will do. Since these new three-dimensional science learning goals embed language use — driven by and described by the practice — within them, language goals and science learning goals are combined and there is no need for the traditional de-contextualized language goals of the past.

Traditionally, language goals (such as those I described earlier) have been separated from science learning goals, and have tended to reflect the view that science is about acquiring and retelling facts and procedures. But that traditional approach separates the language from its context and from its real and powerful purpose: the collaborative construction of meaning. In contrast, three-dimensional, integrated science + language goals harness the power of the sense-making science practices as the purpose for language use. They harness the power of language for doing science. Here are some examples:


Language goals of the past:

three-dimensional learning goals:

Elementary: Students will use descriptive language to compare land forms.

Elementary: Students will collaboratively develop a model that explains and predicts patterns in the changes to the land caused by wind and rain.

Middle school: Students will use the past tense "_ed" form to describe the molecular change that from solid to liquid form when thermal energy is added.

Middle school: Students will collaboratively construct an explanation of the effect that thermal energy has on how molecules move about relative to each other.

Creating a new language goal

With that background in mind, let's take another look at my student's claim about lightning and leaves. I decided to create an alternative and three-dimensional language goal for my class: Students will collaboratively develop a model that explains and predicts effects that cold weather has on plants and animals' survival.

While working on the science idea of the effect of that cold weather has on plant adaptation and survival, I wanted to focus on building students' abilities for collaborative meaning-making. My students needed to build ideas together, so in order to work on the discourse skills of collaboration among students, I had to figure out a way to ensure that all of my students were invested in communicating — both my ELLs and non-ELL students. (For a more detailed explanation of this step-by-step process, see Seven Steps to Using Next Generation Science Standards with ELLs).

Engaging the students in experiencing natural phenomena

I decided to focus on two trees near the school, a coniferous tree and deciduous tree, that the students knew well. We had taken photos of the trees on the first and fifteenth of each month since August, and each time we had taken a photo, we went to observe the trees and discussed, first as partners and then as a class, the actual trees and photos we took. In class, we wrote about our observations, and placed our written observations on the evidence wall on sentence strips. In this student-centered context, support for students' language use was based on their immediate need, rather than on a pre-conceived scope and sequence of language development. I knew these trees would provide a great starting point for the question of how cold weather impacts plants and animals.

Helping students create a model of what is happening

The next step was for students to create their own model of the phenomena. In the early stage of developing their model, the students worked in groups of three to collaboratively place the tree photos in chronological order. Each student had three photos, and they were not permitted to touch any photos but their own. When the students had arranged the photos in an order they all agreed upon, they had to collaboratively write captions under the photos describing the changes they noticed. One student functioned as the scribe, but was allowed to write only the words provided by other group members. The groups also had a graph they had previously created of changes in temperature and hours of daylight that had occurred in the same space of time. The group could refer to these graphs as they generated ideas about the changes they noted in the trees.

Following the sequencing and captioning of the photos, the students had to collaboratively develop a model to explain why the changes seen in the photos were happening. Because I was focused on supporting students' collaborative meaning-making, I needed to support their ability to discuss ideas together. The learning objectives we discussed and recorded were:

  • Listening to each other's ideas is hard work. Everyone needs to explain their ideas and listen to others' ideas.
  • We can tell our own ideas and ask for clarification to make a model to show how and why trees change to survive cold weather.

We started off with these two important student discourse moves: 1) telling and supporting their own idea, and 2) asking for clarification — two of seven important discourse moves that we had identified as part of an NSF project focused on supporting students' discourse engagement in science. Phrases that accomplished those two functions in a variety of ways were written on laminated cards and each student was given a set of these cards (below). When a student struggled to explain his or her idea, we discussed as a class how to persevere together in coming to understand that idea, and which prompts we could use to help us.

Sentence support cards

Adapted from MacDonald, Cook, Miller, 2014

Low English proficiency

Intermediate English proficiency

High English proficiency

  • I think…
  • My reason is…
  • My idea is…
  • We should try… because …
  • The obvious next step would be to…

As the students discussed how to develop an initial model to explain what was happening to the trees, I walked around the groups. When students used the prompts, I praised their efforts to communicate, and sometimes stopped the class to have the group explain why they chose that prompt and whether it helped them understand each other.

Sometimes students needed to produce a question and the question structure was taught and supported, first for that student and then explicitly for the class. Other times the students searched for a science word or phrase to express their observation, such as bark, water level, temperature, or drop in temperature. This language was supported with the experience itself of seeing, touching, diagramming the trees, along with the use of realia, photos, and diagrams.

Supporting language production

I was particularly interested in supporting language production for my ELLs, and in supporting my non-ELLs in working hard to understand their ELL peers' ideas. To provide practice in this, I structured an activity that paired students in speaking and listening together for sixty seconds. The speaker got to explain his/her thinking, and the listener needed to make sure that he or she understood and could rephrase or repeat the idea that had been expressed.

Groups took turns presenting one element of their model. Students' models were combinations of sketches and text, and served as effective language supports, since students could point to elements of the drawing and could use words that had been chosen and written beforehand.

Tree Hit by Lightning

One group showed a tree being hit by lightning. Khaliff spoke first, pointing out features of the model. "The tree is split down the middle, hit by lightning and then it will be black down here." Axel, a beginning-level ELL, spoke, again pointing to the model, "Lightning cuts the tree. Here leaves are and here leaves are (he showed the broken leaves near the trunk of the tree in the model). They fall because of the lightning." He made the searing sound that lightning may have made when it hit the tree. Axel had learned the cause and effect phrase "because of the" which he had needed when dictating one of the captions.

Aliaya came next, "We think lightning hits the tree and then all the leaves crinkle up, change to yellow and brown, and fall off because the tree is in shock. The leaves will grow back when the tree is cured." Another classmate, Germaine, raised his hand, "I have seen that before, too! Lightning makes the leaves fall off the tree." Another student, Emanuela, said, "But there isn't that much lighting, is there? Almost all the leaves change color and fall off."

I was pleased. The idea had originally come from Axel, and he had expressed his idea of cause and effect well. His group had listened and contributed more to his idea. Axel was acquiring language because he was motivated to express his ideas in science. Emanuela gave us something to consider. As the students learned more about trees and the impacts of sunlight and water on plants, we would collaboratively revise our models to incorporate more evidence.

Teacher's Role in three-dimensional Learning

How does this shift impact the role of the teacher? The teacher's role in combined science and language learning changes from delivering science ideas and teaching some language on the side to guiding students' engagement in the scientific practices by shaping the discussion to promote collaborative meaning-making. This new role includes:


  • Creating the need to for students to meaningfully interact
  • Facilitating students' collaborative sense-making: using prompts to clarify & deepen student reasoning and to promote student-to-student idea-focused interactions
  • Ensuring that every student's ideas are sought and valued
  • Designing for ELs to be initiators, as well as responders, of meaning-making in groups
  • Intentionally nurturing and building on student-to-student interactions
  • Supporting tenacity and perseverance in understanding and sense-making
  • Modeling complex and precise language when needed and discussing the rationale behind these linguistic choices

Teachers will still model, explain, and support the language needed to develop mastery of the scientific practice, but they will do this in support of students' co-construction of meaning. Teachers will still be identifying student areas for language development and will model and scaffold language so ELLs gain practice and facility in more complex English; but these opportunities will take place within the sense-making discourse.

Closing Thoughts

Language, like science, is a social endeavor. We can combine both language learning and science learning through three-dimensional leaning that describes the doing of science as a collaborative, discourse-rich, activity that positions students to co-construct a scientific understanding of the natural world. This approach presents an opportunity for teachers to take a new look at how we think about the purpose for language in science. By focusing on students' collaborative engagement in science practices, we can leverage the power of sense-making to drive language development, helping students learn how to talk science while they do science.

This work has been supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation (EAGER Proposal DRL-1346491).


About the Authors

Emily Miller

Emily Miller, a second- and third-grade ESL and bilingual resource science teacher for the Madison, WI Metropolitan School District, served on the Next Generation Science Standards Elementary Writing Team, as well as the Diversity & Equity Team.

Her other articles for Colorín Colorado include:

Rita MacDonald

Rita MacDonald is an Academic English Language Researcher at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research. She has worked extensively in the field of content-language integration, both as a K-12 ESL teacher and as a teacher educator in MATESOL at Saint Michael's College in Vermont. As coordinator of two National Professional Development grants, she has worked to build awareness of discipline-specific language and instructional capacity for content-embedded language instruction for K-12 in-service teachers and has facilitated the integration of Systemic Functional Linguistic theory and pedagogy into pre-service teacher education, resulting in a curriculum being used as a model by other universities, and has published in the fields of teacher collaboration and integrated content-language instruction.


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