Science and Language: Making Connections with the Next Generation Science Standards

In this post, guest blogger Ayanna Cooper shares some of the discussion focused on ELLs from the National Science Teachers Association's annual conference.

Imagine a classroomGarden where English learners are being cognitively challenged while developing science knowledge and English language simultaneously. A place where students are encouraged and required to engage in rich discussions that allow them the freedom to hypothesize without the fear of using English grammar perfectly. A place where discovering  differences between soil samples around their school will lead to extended classroom discussions, family interviews, and a new appreciation for land conservation within their community.

I must admit that I’m not describing my childhood memories of science class. (Although I did enjoy earth science and I successfully remembered all of the names of human muscles that I needed to know in order to pass the quiz, science never really resonated with me!)

Instead, I'NTSAm describing exciting opportunities for English learners, recently highlighted at the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) annual conference in San Antonio, TX. While at the conference, I attended an institute hosted by the U.S. Department of Education Office of English Language Acquisition (OELA), "Enhancing Science Instruction to Meet the Needs of English Learners in Grades 6-12."

The institute focused on how the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) will impact the ELL field and provide more depth, rigor and equity to science education. Not unlike Common Core State Standards (CCSS), states will have the option to adopt these standards, and the Understanding Language initiative has focused its ELL work on both sets of standards. For example, incorporating literacy across content areas is an objective that NGSS and CCSS both share. How the standards will be utilized and implemented by various stakeholders was the highlight of the session.

The diverse expert panel representing research and practice included;

  • Dr. Joanne Urrutia - Deputy Director, Office of English Language Acquisition (U.S. Department of Education)
  • Camsie McAdams - Senior Advisor on STEM Education, Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development (U.S. Department of Education)
  • Dr. Patricia Simmons - President (NSTA)
  • Dr. Okhee Lee - Professor of Science Education at Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development (New York University)
  • Dr. Steven Pruitt - Vice President for Content, Research and Development (Achieve Inc.)
  • Dr. Helen Quinn - Professor Emerita of Physics, SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory (Stanford University)
  • Maria Santos - Co-Chair of the Understanding Language Initiative and Deputy Superintendent for Instruction, Leadership and Equity-in-Action (Oakland Unified School District)
  • Emily Miller - NGSS Design Team Member and 2nd/3rd ESL and Bilingual Resource Teacher (Hawthorne Elementary School in Madison, Wisconsin)
  • Dr. Julio Lopez-Ferrao - Program Director, Division of Research on Learning in Formal and Informal Settings (National Science Foundation)

Note: Some of these affiliations have changed since this blog was published.

A National Perspective

Each panel member presented important perspectives on the necessity of engaging under-served populations in STEM education, particularly English learners. Dr. Urrutia started the session by sharing statistics from the 2010 census, noting that the population of racial minorities under 19 years old is 45% and that more than 20% of school aged children speak another language at home besides English. The number of English learners has doubled from 5% in 1993 to 11% in 2007. The minority will undoubtedly become the majority and the field of educating all students in STEM must be ahead of the curve to successfully prepare our next generation of learners.

A Scientific Perspective

Dr. Quinn shared her experiences in learning about the similarities between English language acquisition and science education. She stressed the importance of not only having students engage in science experiments but also affording them “multiple opportunities to explore a phenomena” because “the phenomena is an opportunity to learn.”  As an engineer, she affirmed the need for students to engage in the argumentative process and data analysis that are also part of inquiry, not just the practice or activity.

Dr. Quinn also acknowledged that science teachers need help understanding the barriers that science content poses for English learners, underscoring the need for collaboration between science and language educators. She clearly dispelled the false dichotomy that science and language are separate, stating, “Science could be the core of the (English) language learning program in schools.”  Innovation at its best!

A District Perspective

MariaOther examples of how this work is being embedded across school districts included a presentation by Maria Santos. She shared the ways in which her school district is working collaboratively by creating learning communities that engage in a focus walk as a way to explore what is happening in the district. (Take a look at this Focus Walk activity for ideas!)

The district also uses an evaluation tool that helps observers capture evidence of what high quality instruction looks like across all content areas. “Principals and other supervisors need to understand science practice deeply,” Ms. Santos stated as she shared resources that her district uses to engage in these discussions and talk about the need for effective professional development.

A Classroom Perspective

IMG_1219As for the soil example I mentioned earlier, that is exactly the classroom community that Emily Miller has created for her students. She shared her experiences of mapping the NGSS with content and language objectives for her 2nd grade students. Their unit focused on the properties of soil and comparing different soil samples. Prior to collecting samples they used an areal and topical map of the school grounds to locate areas from which to collect samples.

She showed video footage of her students excavating soil samples from outside of the their school. Students then discussed the differences between and articulated their observations about the evidence they collected. Their engagement in the unit involved parent interviews and environmental questions about how the land within their community was affected by erosion and litter. They concluded the unit with students writing their idea of how to address those issues. It's exciting to think about the kinds of language that students developed during their science class with Emily! (For more on Emily's work, take a look at her comments about using the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center  as an educational resource.)

Some questions that arose from the session include:

  • What do pre-service educators need to know about NGSS?
  • What do principals and other administrators need to know about NGSS?
  • How do we inform and engage parents and foster community partnerships around science education?
  • What mentorship opportunities are available, if any, within the STEM  community?
  • What policies, if any, are in place to assure English learners have equitable access to all science content including advanced science courses?

What questions would you add to this list? And what kinds of conversations are you in engaged in regarding Science and English language education?

aft shield logo
nea logo


Thanks for carry the banner for Georgia at the conference. Lots of ideas to thinks about. Nice to have met you at TESOL too!

What do effective hands-on science lessons look like? A PD concern for ESOL teachers.

Thank you Kirk! Nice meeting you at TESOL in Dallas, TX.
In regards to your question about effective hands-on science lessons, I believe we need several stakeholders involved in answering that. Here's my two cents: We need collaborative PD that centers around thematic units taught in various grade levels. We also need ESOL program models that support science education - grounded in science concepts.

Good job! I pass this on to my Endorsement class. Great information.

Thank you Cherrilynn,

Stay tuned for this week's blog that will feature additional resources that you may find helpful for your students.

Add new comment

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
Subscribe to Colorín Colorado RSS