Science for all: How to reach English learners

Developmentally inappropriate content puts ELs behind in science from the start! Here are 3 actions and a variety of apps to help EL students build science literacy

Nationally, English learners (ELs) make up nearly 10 percent of PK-12 classrooms and almost 15 percent of urban classrooms, and these numbers are on the rise. Many supports are available for ELs (bilingual programs, SIOP, SEI), but the elementary science materials available are disproportionately directed toward grade-level readers.

In our work in local districts with high EL populations, we regularly see upper elementary students using K-1 science texts. While this might be acceptable for building language proficiency, content becomes a major issue. For example, a fifth-grader reading grade-one content is learning that during the day the sun crosses our sky. Fifth graders should be learning more abstract and complex concepts like how a star’s apparent brightness is related to its distance from Earth. Developmentally inappropriate content puts ELs behind in science from the start! Over multiple years, below grade-level content learning limits ELs’ science knowledge as well as access to secondary and post-secondary STEM programs and careers.

How can we make access to science more equitable? Here are three actions you can take in your own classroom to build science literacy, setting your ELs on a path toward success.

1. Support science reading with technology
A major problem with using below-grade readers in science is that the content is conceptually, socially, and emotionally geared toward younger learners. The EL fifth-graders we worked with refused to read any more picture-heavy books about mommy animals taking care of their babies—and we can’t blame them. Our ELs need reading support for texts about grade-appropriate content.

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