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New Teachers Online: How-To Articles:
Adjust Your Teaching Styles for English Language Learners (ELL) in ESL/Bilingual Classrooms

Teaching Science to Your ELL/ESL Learners: Breaking the Language Barriers
Tobey Bassoff

On a recent outing with one of my exceptionally bright ESL students, I learned that science is an area of great discomfort for her now that she is in middle school. She noted that much of the vocabulary is too difficult to understand because it is presented in a fast paced manner and there are few, if any, reference points.

As teachers, we are constantly faced with the task of how to make meaning out of subjects like upper level science that are often obtuse. When we connect a hands-on activity to the learning, the concept is often crystal clear.

However, there are times when this is not possible, especially with demands placed on teachers to fit a great deal of subject matter into a short time. In these cases, there are several strategies you might want to try to ensure that your ESL students are "with you" and the rest of the class:

  • Introduce visually dynamic literature before you start a new unit
  • Find simple tactile projects that build a framework before the start of a unit
  • Set the student up with pre-selected Internet sites that bring the concept alive and offer reference points.

The following links will help with implementing science experiments:






Literature, in all forms, is an easy way to familiarize students with a concept. For example, if you are studying a unit about plants, you could go to the school library and assign ESL students books to read, for homework, that illustrated some of the concepts you are going to go over in the main class unit. The vocabulary in these books should be the simpler vocabulary that you expect your native language students to already have. If you have time, you can design questions for them to answer, or you can have the students design questions and answer them for extra credit. In addition, you can bring in seed packets, branches, flower petals, and discuss them during class. These real objects give ESL students a reference point for learning. They can connect their prior knowledge to a new concept, making the learning more meaningful. Poems and fiction stories can also aid students in their understanding of science concepts; the interest level is high because children are naturally curious about the world around them. For additional ideas, consult Plants: Curriculum-Based Hands-On Activities (2000 Education Center). 

Another way to build science vocabulary with your ESL students in a particular unit is to give them easy tactile projects to complete before a unit begins. These projects can be found on the Internet, from the Education Center, INC. resources, and in teaching publications called "Mailbox."  These activities range from creating a flower and labeling the parts, to seeing how the recycling process works through a cut and paste puzzle with pictures of objects. The difference these activities will make in your ESL students learning is amazing. The activities take little time for you to copy, and will make a huge difference to them and their understanding. Remember, most of your ESL students will have gaps in their English language vocabulary, so don't be afraid to start at a very basic grade 1-3 vocabulary, especially in the sciences.

Finally, if there is Internet access at your school, then begin a search at www.yahooligans.com and type in your subject matter in the search space. This site is a fantastic search engine for teachers who want to find interactive "games" and visually appealing diagrams. A bit of advice: Identify the sites you want your students to use before you just allow them to "surf."

Many of the sites are educational, but there are some sites that are better than others. 

Good Luck, and remember that the work you do with ESL students is invaluable!

Questions or comments? E-mail Tobey.


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