Teaching Science to English Language Learners: What do the NGSS Tell Us?

In last week’s post, guest blogger Ayanna Cooper shared some highlights of the Office of English Language Acquisition’s pre-conference session at the National Science Teachers Association’s conference in San Antonio, Texas. In this week’s post, I will take a deeper look at the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) themselves and will share some resources on teaching science to ELLs with you.

Let me begin by divulging that I was a double Physics and German major in college, so I’ve been interested in the intersection between science and language for quite some time. I have since focused more on language (and my current recollection of Physics equations is a bit rusty to say the least), but I am always excited when discussing how much rich academic language can be embedded in science instruction – or should be, anyway.

An Overview of the NGSS

The NGSS were created during a two year period through the collaboration of twenty-six states, a writing team, and several partners, managed by Achieve. The standards identify science, engineering practices, and content that all students at the K-12 level should master to be prepared for college, careers, or citizenship. The vision that undergirds the NGSS was established by the National Academies’ National Research Council in 2011 and called the Framework for K-12 Science Education. The NGSS focus on scientific practices as well as content and are intended to lead to a deeper learning of skills needed to be successful beyond grade 12. In sum, the standards focus on teaching students to actively engage in their science classes instead of memorizing scientific facts.

The Interplay Between Language and Science

Nature WalkTo that end, academic language is central to all students mastering the NGSS. That is, students will need to use language in inquiry-based science principles to conduct experiments, discuss, and argue their findings.  Also, the NGSS strive to make connections across content areas, stressing that requirements and norms for academic discourse are largely common across all science disciplines and subject areas such as English Language Arts and Mathematics. Across the three subject areas defined by the NGSS, CCSS for ELA/Literacy and Mathematics, students are expected to use language to engage in argumentation from evidence; construct explanations; obtain, synthesize, evaluate, and communicate information; and build a knowledge base through content rich texts.

For example, the concept of cause and effect can be used to explain phenomena in Earth science as well as to examine character or plot development in literature as part of the CCSS for ELA/Literacy. The NGSS state that using academic language in similar ways across subject areas is especially beneficial for students such as ELLs in low performing schools who often focus more on developing literacy and numeracy at the cost of other subjects such as science.

Using the NGSS with ELLs

Unlike the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Mathematics - which only devote a couple of pages to considerations in teaching the CCSS to ELLs - the NGSS contains an entire chapter (Appendix D) on teaching the NGSS to diverse learners, including ELLs. The title of that chapter is “All Standards, All Students” and serves as a call to action to use these standards to equitably educate students from “non-dominant groups” who have been marginalized and held to low academic expectations in the past. The chapter stresses that dominant groups do not necessarily refer to the majority of a school population but rather to the social prestige and institutionalized privilege dominant groups typically receive. The chapter defines non-dominant groups as:

  • Economically disadvantaged students
  • Students from major racial and ethnic groups
  • Students with disabilities
  • Students with limited English proficiency (ELLs)
  • Gender (i.e., females)
  • Students in alternative education programs
  • Gifted and talented students

After defining its intended population of students, the chapter then contains instructional approaches that teachers can use with different types of learners (e.g., students with disabilities, ELLs, gifted and talented students, etc.) to support them as they teach these standards to the wide range of students that make up today’s classrooms.

Appendix D highlights seven forthcoming case studies of diverse student groups, including one case study about ELLs (in the case of ELLs, the case study is for second grade earth science). The goal of the chapter and the case studies is to demonstrate that NGSS are extended to all students. Each case study begins with a vignette of science instruction to illustrate learning opportunities through effective classroom strategies and connections to NGSS and CCSS for English language arts and mathematics. The vignette emphasizes what teachers can do to successfully engage students in learning the NGSS. Then, it provides a brief summary of the research literature on effective classroom strategies for the student group highlighted in the case study.

In the case of ELLs, the research literature base indicates five areas where teachers can support both science and language learning: (1) literacy strategies for all students, (2) language support strategies with ELLs, (3) discourse strategies with ELLs, (4) home langLeeuage support, and (5) home culture connections.

It’s quite clear from Appendix D that two advocates for ELLs who understand these students’ strengths and challenges worked to write the NGSS.  Okhee Lee, a professor of education at New York University and an expert on ELLs and science was one writer who provided input. Also, Emily Miller, a second and third grade ESL and bilingual resource teacher at Hawthorne Elementary School in Madison, Wisconsin also helped write the standards.

Resources on the NGSS for ELLs

Resources on Teaching Science to ELLs

  • Science Instruction for ELLs Resource section This Colorín Colorado section includes strategies, recommended resources, and information on the NGSS
  • Science Instruction for ELLs Booklist This Colorín Colorado booklist recommends a number of titles that focus on specific considerations and strategies for science. Many of the titles offer guidelines for managing vocabulary instruction, homework, and assessment
  • Teaching Science to English Language Learners – A book published in 2011 by Joyce Nutta, Nazan Bautista, and Malcolm Butler offers science teachers and teacher educators a straightforward approach for engaging ELLs learning science, sharing examples of easy ways to adapt existing lesson plans to be more inclusive of ELLs
  • Science for English Language Learners: - A book published in 2006 and edited by Ann Fathman and David Crowther expands teachers’ expertise in teaching science content and processes, in language development and literacy, and in inquiry-based teaching
  • Making Science Accessible to English LearnersThis 2007 book by John Carr, Ursula Sexton, and Rachel Lagunoff helps middle and high school science teachers reach ELLs in their classrooms through practical guidance, powerful and concrete strategies, and sample lesson scenarios

Do you teach science to ELLs? If so, what are your thoughts on the NGSS and teaching science to students who are also learning English? Which strategies have you found to be successful with your students? We always welcome your comments!

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