By Rose Walsh
Last year, I was in a practicum where I was instructed to spend part of every week in an ELL classroom to observe and work with students who speak a different language. During this time, I worked with a student who had arrived from Iraq only a few weeks before. While I worked with this student, I began to see the school day through his eyes. Imagine being dropped off at school, enter a classroom where no one speaks your language, be sometimes ignored by teachers, feel unable to make friends because you can’t relate to their culture or have simple conversations with them, etc.
These are just some challenges that face an ELL student during the school day. It would be understandable, considering these struggles, to believe that science would be an additional burden upon an ELL student. For most people, experiences with science involve lots of technical terms, reading from science textbooks, and perhaps long detailed instructions on activities. If these were the case, it would make sense that a science curriculum may not be the best suited for a non-English speaker in a classroom.
However, throughout this semester, I have begun to realize the opportunities that science gives to all types of students, including those with limited English language understanding. For instance, throughout this class I have had to learn of the benefits of keeping a science journal. While at first I was hesitant to see the positive results of a science notebook, I began to enjoy the diagrams, charts, and drawings that I created during class activities. Even if I couldn’t remember a scientific vocabulary word, I could describe it and could see what had happened in all of my hands-on experiences. I began to have a better appreciation for notebooks in general, but especially for students who struggle with writing or language. This science journal may also be helpful in creating a dialogue between the school/teacher and the student’s family. In Nelson’s article on “Learning English, Learning Science,” she speaks about the importance of involving the family and that it can both encourage enthusiasm and academic interest. By taking the time to create this partnership, the student will become more engaged in learning and will gain important skills, not the least of which is language skills.
In addition to journals, ELL students may find that science can be one of the least pressured subjects. Unlike reading or writing class, the focus is not necessarily upon preparing for a test or memorizing English words. By creating an environment which engages students and focuses upon all three legs of science (Content, Process, and Nature of Science), ELL students can have the freedom to ask their own questions (even in their own language) and explore ideas and theories without the rigidness of other daily activities or tasks. Science can also be an opportunity for students to be creative, according to William McComas. Since it is possible that some ELL students may feel lost or overwhelmed by some tasks, it could be a wonderful opportunity to engage in real learning.
As I look forward to teaching in my own classroom, I recognize that every student comes to the classroom with their own individual needs and hopes. For students who may have some cultural or language barriers to learning in the classroom, it is my hope that I can provide science lessons that will involve each student in a positive learning experience.
Nelson, Virginia. “Learning English, Learning Science.” Science and Children. 2010.
McComas, William. “Keys to Teaching the Nature of Science.” The Science Teacher. 2004.