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English Learners in STEM Subjects

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Flavio Mendez Flavio Mendez 52581 Points

Hello all,

English learners (ELs) bring a wealth of ideas, perspectives, and solutions to STEM education. However, according to a report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (2018), the nearly 5 million students classified as ELs in public schools are falling behind when it comes to STEM education.

NSTA is hosting a Virtual Conference titled 'English Learners in STEM Subjects: Contemporary Approaches to Classroom Instruction' on Saturday, May 4, 2019.  For more information about the conference, visit:

Please tell us about your work with English Learners.  Please share your strategies, lesson plans, and units of instruction with others within this Topic.


Ruth Hutson Ruth Hutson 64325 Points

I am looking forward to attending this Virtual Conference.  This is an area about which I feel most unsure in my teaching practice. I am excited to learn more helpful strategies and methods of best practice to use with my English Learners. Thank you for the link to the report, Flavio.  I will check it out. 

Carolyn Mohr Carolyn Mohr 92316 Points

Hi Flavio,

Thank you for the link to the book - free download at NAP!  It is an easy read and chock full of great information.  It didn't take me long to find this helpful list on page 98: Five promising instructional strategies to help ELLs build on their home languages include:

1. Engage Students in Disciplinary Practices

2. Engage Students in Productive Discourse and Interactions with Others

3. Utilize and Encourage Students to Use Multiple Registers and Multiple Modalities

4. Leverage Multiple Meaning-Making Resources

5. Provide Some Explicit Focus on How Language Functions in the Discipline

I hope to have the book read before Saturday.  I am really lookiing forward to the virtual conference and to learn more from our distinquished presenters on ways to provide higher levels of rigorous engagement with science.

Sarah Monda Sarah Monda 665 Points

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 S ediment  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

Hi Flavio,

I'm in the ESEE teaching program at UH Manoa. We have learned some strategies to help ELL and MLL students in the classroom. Some inlcude providing many visuals with words in both english and their language (ex. make a STEM 'dictionary'), have students work in small groups with another student who can translate some of the basic content, and/or make a step-by-step sheet with visuals and simple kid friendly language. Hope this helps.


Zoe Farris Zoe Farris 505 Points

Hi Flavio,

I am currently studying to be a teacher.  Last year, I worked with students at a school where most of the students were ELs.  Concerning one of the kindergarteners, he didn't even want to listen or pay attention, so there were a lot more behavioral issues.  Thus, I had to work extra hard in coming up with strategies to best help him and motivate him to want to learn.  I found that making connections to his first language and discussing the English translation was one way to motivate him and keep him engaged.  One other really big advice is to include a lot of modeling and not making assumptions about student knowledge.  Providing visuals and hands-on examples will also greatly help.  Another helpful tool may include providing pictures in your instructions, so the students have a better idea of what they need to do and how to do it.  After all, this is a STEM lesson — not a language arts lesson.  

Jenna Guggenbiller Jenna Guggenbiller 1035 Points

English Learners can bring a different, new and refreshing light to STEM activities in education. It surprises me that Els students were reported falling behind in STEM. It is very important to allow students to discover the new meaning for themselves before fighting a roadblock of vocabulary with English Language students. It is very important for teachings to steer away from vocabulary for a moment and focus more on the bigger picture of the lesson instead, in order to then draw their conclusions about the new vocabulary and make connections to it. I think it is important for all students to be presented with contextualized explanations of a subject in order to better show the meaning of the lesson. This would also allow students to become more engaged in the vocabulary terms. I wish I did not miss out on this Virtual Conference as this is an area that I wish to strengthen when it comes to my teaching.

Sarah Monda Sarah Monda 665 Points

I wish I had discovered many more conferences like this years ago. Everything I have acquired in terms of tricks of the trade have been acquired the hard way; trial and error (sometimes a lot of error). Don't be afraid to try out a new technique or method. Use what works, throw away what doesn't. That's generally my life motto. ;) 

Sydney Pierce Sydney Pierce 225 Points

I agree it is important for all students to create meaning out of new vocabulary, ELLs or Native English speakers alike. When learning new vocabulary, simply copying down definitions from the dictionary does not seem like the most effective technique. This includes other disciplines as well and not exclusively science. I am wondering what effective strategies for contextualizing science-related vocabulary would look like?

Tianyang Xu Tianyang Xu 2413 Points

Hello, I like the idea you mentioned that STEM teaching should steer away from vocabulary for a moment. I think it is critically important to know the student's actual conceptual understanding level. Regardless of vocabulary, visual representing can be another great strategy for students to represent what they have learned. In this process, they will also acquire the key vocabulary. Thanks for sharing!

George Mehler George Mehler 1575 Points

Hello fellow science teachers,
I am replying you behalf of Funsciencedemos YouTube Channel that is home to hundreds of free videos for ideas for teachers and students to recreate in the classroom. Science is our passion and we are so excited to share our engaging, kid-teacher-parent friendly, and interactive lessons with you to use in the classroom or at home. Our videos adhere to the common core science standards, encompass a wide variety of science concepts, and are specifically geared toward younger learners. All videos on the FunScienceDemos channel come with an English subtitle that can be translated into almost any language, making science lessons accessible virtually any place in the world.  
We encourage you check it out and spread the word! We post new science videos once a month, please subscribe our channel.
The FunScienceDemos Team


Noelle Lum Kee Noelle Lum 760 Points


I am currently a pre-service teacher, and one of my requirements for my degree is to take an instructional and assessment methods for multilingual learners. I've learned a lot about the importance of knowing their background and culture and their preferred learning styles. One thing I learned is that learners retain more information when talking to an advanced speaker. My suggestion is when having group or small discussions, having your EL's be in groups with advanced speakers in the class. Overall, encourage your students to ask questions and don't be afraid to ask them questions that involve explanations! The most successful second langaguae learners learn from their mistakes and from exposure and comprehension.

- Noelle

Olivia Frick Olivia Frick 2080 Points

Hi all!

After reading all of the replies, I wanted to reiterate a quote from Sarah. 'Find a way to contextualize the necessary vocabulary, but allow the students to discover the meaning for themselves.' I think that being science-based and especially with the Engineering topics, we cannot push students to 'know' concepts. We have to allow students to figure it out on their own with guidance!

Tianyang Xu Tianyang Xu 2413 Points


Yes! If we can design some projects that may help students spontaneously acquire new vocabulary, I think our instruction will be more effective! Thanks for sharing!

Greg Tomlinson Greg Tomlinson 540 Points

With my EL learners in STEM, I have found that giving visuals and manipulatives and doing demonstrations are effective to help teach. Depending on the need of the EL having these visuals or manipulatives have helped the student understand compared to lecturing or taking notes.

Sarah Monda Sarah Monda 665 Points

Hello again. I would just like to provide a bit of an update on this thread regarding ELLs in STEM subjects. This year, my school has instituted a policy of Project Based Learning. This is something I have used often in the past for upper primary and secondary students. 

For those who don't know or have never done PBL, it is fairly simple. The teacher sets a guiding/driving question (or the students can identify a problem and create their own driving question) and the students work toward solving or answering the question. Ideally, the students conduct and resource 99% of the project themselves. They take notes, conduct research, generate models or designs, test the models, and do the evaluation themselves. The teachers are only there guide or help out. At teh end of the project the students explain or show waht they have learned to peers and the public.

I have found this to be a useful approach to STEM for upper primary and into secondary. Once students are taught how to conduct research and keep notes, they can begin to take charge of their own learning. Their knowledge retention generally improves during these PBL units. Students who are normally not engaged in the lesson due to language barriers have been more attentive and shown more progress than they might have if the unit was taught in a more traditional manner.  

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