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Helping ESL students in science class

Teaching science to English as a second language students can pose real challenges. ESL students are not only learning English, they are also learning the language of science. 

In an academic year, students are responsible for learning hundreds of science vocabulary terms. For English language learners, it can be difficult to navigate the language of science unless a series of scaffolding strategies are put in place.

First of all, every lesson should begin with a “Do Now” activity that activates students’ prior knowledge. Keep in mind that ESL students may have different background knowledge compared to other urban students. 

ESL students may have first-hand experience with many of the science concepts we teach. After all, our foreign-born students may have lived in a range of climates, in rural areas or may have even lived through earthquakes or hurricanes. Allowing ESL students to access and share their prior knowledge provides them with a sense that they already know science, despite their language barriers.

Visual aids can also help us reach our English language learners. As the saying goes, a picture is indeed worth a thousand words. Abstract concepts such as particles, energy, expansion and contraction can be made easier to understand with visual aids. 

For those of us fortunate enough to have a projector and a smartboard, sites such as and have short, animated clips that illustrate concepts in every field of science. When students can see concepts illustrated, they get a better understanding of them.

An inquiry-based approach to science is also effective at reaching ESL students. Hands-on science requires less interaction with the dense language of science textbooks and allows for more meaningful learning of concepts by engaging students in science activities. By developing questions, forming hypotheses and carrying out investigations, students become more versed in the language and process of science. Rather than being told the facts, in an inquiry-based classroom students must draw their own conclusions. 

An inquiry-based approach also encourages students to collaborate and communicate as they learn. ESL students can benefit from having to communicate orally as they carry out activities with their peers and work together to record data. Students also need to make claims, back up their claims with evidence and draw conclusions. All of these processes require communication among peers as well as whole class instruction. 

While an inquiry-based approach may lessen some of the language demands put on ESL students, at some point all students need to use a textbook to find information. ESL students need additional scaffolds to make their way through the complicated language used in science textbooks. Be sure to preview the key vocabulary words used in the chapter and provide a glossary in the students’ native language if possible. 

As most science terms have a Latin or Greek origin, students may find that the vocabulary terms are similar in many languages. Use graphic organizers to help students find the main idea and supporting details in a text, and be clear about what key concepts we want students to extract from the text. 

Graphic organizers can also help students show what they know. As we assess students with varying levels of fluency and academic literacy, we want to make sure we allow ESL students an opportunity to demonstrate their level of understanding of science concepts. 

Students can use graphics such as arrows or numbers to demonstrate changes such as increases and decreases when learning about mass, volume and density. Graphic organizers such as concept maps allow students to develop language skills while showing their knowledge of relationships by making them link vocabulary terms with clauses such as metamorphic rocks -> are formed by -> pressure and heat. 

Science is really a way of thinking that involves gathering information, making inferences and then organizing and explaining the information. In other words, science involves all the literacy skills found in every other content area. 

Science teachers can be key in helping our English language learners develop the academic literacy they need to succeed in all subjects by providing ESL students with strategies to help them develop their thinking skills.

Related Topics: Teacher to Teacher