Using Science to Develop ELLs' Language Skills

"The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not 'Eureka! I found it!' but 'That's funny…'"

— Isaac Asimov


"Oh, you mean the life cycle." This was my pre-school daughter's response to my long explanation of the metamorphosis of the butterfly. Of course, she had an advanced vocabulary at that age, but I never dreamed she would know the term, "life cycle." This has stood out to me as an example of how children can understand advanced concepts and learn advanced vocabulary even though they cannot read about the subject or understand technical explanations. An English language learner may not have an advanced English vocabulary, but with the right kind of curriculum and instruction, teachers may be surprised at the knowledge ELLs can gain. Science lends itself well to developing ELL students' language and content knowledge because there are so many opportunities for hands-on learning and observation.

In my district the elementary summer school ESL curriculum is based on science learning. Each ESL teacher receives a FOSS kit, a tub of science materials that support a theme. FOSS, which stands for "Full Option Science System," is a research-based science curriculum for grades K-8 developed at the Lawrence Hall of Science, University of California at Berkeley. My district uses this science curriculum in classrooms with newcomers, and it has gotten very positive reviews from summer school ESL teachers. Because we use the same curriculum with our non-ESL students, the summer program allows our English language learners an opportunity to access the same curriculum content with strategies to support their language development needs.

There are three ESL summer school science units - Pebbles, the Sound of Music, and the Life Cycle of the Butterfly - that have been developed through collaboration with ESL and Science teachers. The basic materials provided in each kit to support the units include items such as different kinds of rocks, a variety of readable materials on the topic, small chimes, triangles, xylophone, string, caterpillars, sticks, milkweed and blank notebooks. ESL teachers attend an all-day training before summer school starts, and they learn how to use all the materials to enhance students' science and language learning.

The Butterfly Unit

The Butterfly curriculum focuses on the life cycle of the butterfly, and the science kit includes:

  • monarch butterfly caterpillars
  • milkweed
  • jars
  • sticks
  • posters of the life cycle
  • fiction and non-fiction books on butterflies
  • blank notebooks

Since this curriculum is used with newcomer students, the teacher begins by using pictures to introduce key vocabulary, such as butterfly, eggs, caterpillar, and milkweed. The vocabulary is then reinforced by doing a picture walk through a butterfly book. Some ESL students may have been in the country for a year, and some may have just arrived, so the teacher can ask the students with higher English speaking skills to help model the information being taught.

Graphic Organizers

Students use graphic organizers to increase their comprehension and demonstrate knowledge. One simple organizer is the circle map, which has students give as many words and ideas as they can think of about butterflies.

  1. The word, "butterfly" is written in the middle circle, and a large circle is drawn around it.
  2. Students offer words relating to butterflies such as "pretty," "caterpillar," "flower," "flying," and "changing."
  3. The teacher asks, "How do you know this word is related to butterflies? What is your experience?"
  4. Students will give answers such as, "Butterflies are pretty because there are lots of different colors," or "You always see butterflies by flowers."
  5. The teacher writes these responses outside of the large circle. Now the teacher has the students' background knowledge to build on.

(For more ideas on using graphic organizers with ELLs, take a look at this Bright Ideas article.)


Students do a variety of activities, such as drawing pictures of butterflies, labeling the stages in the life cycle, writing in journals, and reading books on butterflies and presenting a few facts to the class. They also set up a "Butterfly Jar," that contains the milkweed, a stick and the caterpillar. Each day in class they observe their caterpillar's progress towards becoming a butterfly and write their observation in their science log. Students with very limited English skills can either write the information in their first language, or copy a short sentence that the teacher writes on the board. It is exciting for the students to see how their butterfly changes over the summer and to discuss it with each other in class. Some students name their caterpillars and write stories about them and where they might go when they are released. When the butterfly finally emerges from its cocoon, the students set it free and discuss what they learned about butterflies and what will happen to the butterfly on its journey.

Reflections on ESL Science curriculum

The hands-on activities in elementary science curriculum lend themselves well to developing language skills. For example in the "Pebbles" kit, students can actually touch and sort a variety of rocks and learn vocabulary such as color names and words like rough, smooth, hard, big, and small. They can use the vocabulary words in meaningful ways when they write in their log book, "The quartz rock is rough and white." The science curriculum combined with language development, reinforces learning. Students are not learning vocabulary out of context, such as when ESL students learn a list of color vocabulary words or adjectives. Students are also exposed to valuable science concepts that they may or may not be exposed to during the year since not all teachers use the science kits.

How to get started

Collaboration between ESL and classroom teachers is a very effective way to begin using science curriculum for language learning. There are a number of different ways that team teaching could be done effectively. Some teachers may want to have a common planning time and then teach together in the classroom during the science lesson. Other teachers may want to take time to plan the unit together and then have the ESL teacher pre-teach concepts and practice similar science activities prior to the actual classroom lesson. If bilingual resources are available, teachers may introduce key vocabulary in the students' native language and post the words on the wall. Finally, if it is overwhelming to think of collaborating on the science unit during the school year, summer school presents a perfect time to use hands-on science materials, the outdoors, and student energy to learn and have fun. However you decide to explore science with your ESL students, it will be a wonderful experience that will be exciting and full of new English words… You may also take the opportunity to teach a new meaning for the phrase, "That's funny…"

Booklist: Science Instruction for ELLs

These books written by veteran educators were compiled by Colorín Colorado and describe a variety of activities and strategies that can be used to engage ELLs in science lessons, as well as to develop their academic language skills around science topics.

Museum of Science: Field Trip Activities

The website from the Boston Museum of Science offers examples of field trip activities that students can try, as well as downloadable worksheets and chaperone guides.

National Center for Research on the Educational Achievement and Teaching of English Language Learners

The National Center for Research on the Educational Achievement and Teaching of English Language Learners (CREATE) is a research program designed to improve educational outcomes for ELLs by using a combination of strategies focused on readers in Grades 4-8 and teacher professional development. The CREATE Web site includes webcast seminars hosted by CREATE researchers, and listings of CREATE conferences and presentations around the country.

National Geographic Website

Links to many articles, photos, and video clips related to current events and supporting science and social studies concepts.

Smithsonian Institute: Science and Technology for Kids

Links to information from the Smithsonian Institute on a variety of topics. Includes video streaming on interesting connections like the Apollo 11 space mission to the moon.

NASA Science for Kids

The NASA website for kids includes links to fun activities and further space activity links.

Flashcards: Body Parts of Animals

This site features flashcards with basic descriptions of vocabulary such as "claws," "horn," and "fins."

The Full Option Science System (FOSS) website

The FOSS website includes a science curriculum scope and sequence for K-8, plus detailed information about how the program works.

Hands-On Science Activities

This website, from the Jefferson Lab, offers a variety of hands-on science lesson plans. This is a great site for teachers in grades 6-8, as it also provides ideas on how to modify lessons to meet students' needs.

Vietnamese Culture and Science Association (VCSA)

Vietnamese Culture and Science Association (VCSA) is a non-profit 501(c)(3) whose main goals are promoting harmony and cooperation amongst Vietnamese Americans, especially in the fields of Culture and Science, and providing a multi-faceted environment where young Vietnamese American professionals can exchange ideas, share skills, and participate in the building of a strong Vietnamese-American community.



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