Hi everyone. First I would like to explain what my teaching background is. I have never taught in the US. My entire teaching career thus far has been abroad in China. All of the students in my classroom are ELLs. I have taught all ages from 3 to 23 in mutliple subjects. What follows is my take on teaching STEM (or any subject really) to Primary or lower Secondary level students (CEFR A-1 to B-2 ablility level for those of you who are familiar with that system).
One question I often get from new teachers is : "How do you teach science to students who don't know the vocabulary? I (the person asking) seem to spend all my time explaining vocabulary and not actually teachig content." The idea is that the most significant roadblock to comprehension in class is vocabulary. Students may very well understand a concept in their L1, but they lack the vocabulary or academic language sckills to fully comprehend the same topic in a second language.
My response: Find a way to contextualize the necessary vocabulary, but allow the students to discover the meaning for themselves.
Don't just frontload vocabulary. Vocabulary and definitions mean NOTHING to a student who does not have academic English language skills. The vocabulary must be contextualized. This allows the student to draw conclusions about the new vocabulary without resorting to translation. Example:
--When teaching the Rock Cycle to my year 4 class, I provide the vocabulary list, but I don't define the words at first. I as the students to first write down what they think the words mean (making inferences based on prior knowledge). Then I provide a contextualized explanation. For this particular example, this meant getting volunteers up to the front of the room to SHOW the meaning of the different stages of the rock cycle. Included in the short acting session was a story about a band:
"They came onto the scene like they were shot from a volcano (previously learnt vocabulary). They called themselves the Igneous Rock Band. The band travelled around the world. As they travelled they got tired and worn out. Many years later, they were weathered by the sun, wind and rain, and very tired looking. One day, the top singer and the drummer in the band decided to leave the band. The band broke apart. Some of the members went to live among other rockers who had also left their bands. They lived in a place called Sediment at the bottom of the ocean. After many more years, more and more people came to Sediment. They started calling the place Sedimentary Rocks because so many former band members lived there that everyone was living close together and they stuck together in small groups. Eventually, after many more years, some groups got really big. The children and grand children of the people in Sedimentary Rocks started hanging out in new places. They moved lower down in the Earth where there was more room. There, they lived in new, hot places. They made a new band. The name of this new band was Metamorphic Rock. But to get out of the neighborhood, they had to get REALLY HOT! Eventually, they got so hot that they melted. When they melted, they re-named the band the Igneous Rock Band (2) and they began the cycle again."
--After the story and acting session (it only takes about 5 minutes), the lesson moves on. I do provide a vocabulary list, but we don't dwell on the vocabulary. At one point in the lesson, the instruction moves into doscovery groups where students work together to acheive the daily targets or complete the tasks. More proficient students assist those still struggling within the group. Self-discovery is the aim of these groups. At this point, the students are free to use whatever resources they need to solidify their understanding of the vocabulary or lesson targets. At the end of each lesson is a reflection section, "what I learned today", "what I would like to spend more time on" and "what I want to learn tomorrow", where each student orally or in writing will summarize the topics that were covered in that lesson in their own words (this also provides me a way to check the overall comprehension level of the class).
*Telling a story and asking a group to act out the story is just one way to help ELLs to internalize the vocabulary. I realise that storytelling is not everyone's strong suit, but the main goal is to provide a visual or tactile way for students to discover the language for themsleves. Using multiple modalities (storytelling, diagrams, oral and written re-telling, etc.) makes the subject being taught the vehicle by which language is acquired rather than the other way around