EL Strategies

Science Strategies with English Language Learners

Establish and Maintain a Science Learning Environment

A science learning environment is governed by accurate images of the work that scientists do.  Scientific studies take place according to communal norms, both those of the classroom and of science.  In such a setting, different perspectives about natural events are shared openly and all ideas are considered for their validity.   Errors are seen as part of the leaning process and growth in understanding occurs through a process of refinement, change, and even replacement of ideas.  Most importantly, it supports the belief that all students have access to science.  In promoting these ideals for English language learners, the teacher can:

  1. Establish and maintain a safe and comfortable learning environment in which differences in background, experience, and perspective are recognized and accepted.
  2. Establish and maintain a classroom environment in which student errors are accepted as part of the learning process.
  3. Focus more on activities demonstrating scientific principles and the gradual evolution of students’ thinking, and less on whether students can recite well-polished explanations of theories, principles, and concepts. 
  4. Challenge the range of ideas that arise in the course of a lesson, both those in and not in alignment with science.
  5. Present a well-balanced science curriculum, one that addresses the five domains of science (NSTA, 1982):  knowledge core, application, processes, attitudes, creativity.


Teach a Well-Balanced Science Curriculum

Students must be provided learning experiences that: (1) provide them access to the science knowledge core; (2) offer opportunities to apply skills and newly acquired understandings to novel situations; (3) engage them in the processes of science; (4) contribute to the development of appropriate scientific attitudes; and (5) promote creativity in the sciences (NSTA, 1982).  A well-balanced science curriculum provides opportunities for students to engage in science inquiry through which they develop an accurate image of science and the skills and understandings of science.  Specific strategies the teacher can use are:

  1. Give significant focus to science as a means of inquiry into the natural world. 
  2. Through the curriculum, encourage students to develop questions and lines of inquiry in pursuit of answers to their own questions in their own terms (Driver, 1989). 
  3. Provide experiences that provoke relevant questions from students and which lead to formulating hypotheses and designing investigations in the pursuit of answers.
  4. Establish a learning environment that respects and honors cultural diversity (TESOL, 1999) and that provides students opportunities to engage in discourse around their own ideas and those of other students, data, observed events, science concepts.
  5. Establish communal norms for the pursuit of science and structure groups and group activities to promote learning in science:

·      Group students heterogeneously according to level of English language proficiency.

·      Promote positive group and social behaviors conducive to the study of science.

·      Monitor and provide opportunities for reflection on group process.


Address Students’ Notions in Teaching

Students of all ages and at all levels of the educational system possess notions of the natural world that discord with those of science.  These notions, as part of larger, complex systems of interlinked concepts, have predictive and explanatory value for the learner.  Learners are not likely to discard these existing notions unless they are sufficiently motivated to do so (Hewson & Hewson, 1984).  Factors include: (1) dissatisfaction with an existing conception, (2) motivation to change, (3) the validity of a competing idea(s).  Research indicates that students of different cultures form similar notions of natural events.  However, we also know that students’ beliefs may be influenced by significant cultural factors in their lives, such as religion.


Know your students. 

  1. Know the background of your students such that you will be better able to predict student reactions to sensitive issues in science.
  2. Become familiar with research on learners’ conceptions related to a specific topic.
  3. Be aware of students’ interpretations of diagrams, illustrations, data sets, etc., as students’ may interpret diagrams and illustrations in ways that are not intended, thereby contributing to students forming mental images that do not agree with actual natural events. 
  4. Pre-assess learners for the notions they hold about the concepts associated with the topic under study and design instruction to directly address these conceptions


Use Strategies that Promote Conceptual Change.  

The impact of specific instructional processes designed to promote conceptual change has been well documented.  Many of these models include strategies designed to directly confront students’ existing notions.

  1. Use models of science teaching that focus on promoting conceptual change in the learner
  2. Engage students in a task or perform a demonstration in the opening stages of a lesson to engage students’ thinking on a topic.
  3. Use bridging analogies in teaching a new concept based on experiences that are common to students.
  4. Incorporate models in teaching and model building in student activities.
  5. Use writing activities and discussion as a way to engage student reflection on their own beliefs.


Teach Academic Language through Science

Middle and high school students access much of the science curriculum through language.  In order to improve access, teachers must help ELLs learn the discipline-specific English used in science discourse.  Oral and written language activities are tools to learning science when the science curriculum integrates content and language objectives. Teaching activities focus on use of textbooks, addressing vocabulary, and oral and written communication.


  1. Help students attend to the organization and written style of their science textbooks.
  2. Give attention to discipline-specific language features (e.g., “if…then”, use of “is”)
  3. Teach discipline-specific comprehension strategies.



  1. Define terms explicitly and require students to use them accurately. 
  2. Teach the meaning of topic-specific words.  Help students to see the difference in the common and scientific meanings of words (e.g., force).
  3. Provide an appropriate context for introducing vocabulary.
  4. Teach new vocabulary on a daily basis. 
  5. Provide adequate exposure to words students encounter in their lessons and readings.  Construct a science word wall. 
  6. Encourage students to use subject specific vocabulary in their conversations.


Speech and Writing

  1. Set high yet appropriate expectations for student writing and oral language use in science. Require students to use Standard English in their speech and writing.
  2. Structure students’ writing assignments to promote thinking and writing of scientific discourse.
  3. Provide written corrective feedback on a weekly basis.   Meet with students to discuss their writing. 
  4. Design language activities that engage students in scientific discourse:  discussion, learning logs or journals, report writing, etc.


Use “Best Practices” in Teaching Science

  • Focus on the big ideas, key concepts, the learning of which can be transferred to similar contexts.
  • Facilitate classroom discourse around concepts that emerge from observation of natural events.
  • Provide “hands-on/minds-on” experiences with materials and realia.
  • Provide students a common experience that serves as the focus of a lesson
  • Use appropriate questioning and questioning strategies (e.g., wait time) to engage all students in classroom discourse.
  • Provide sufficient opportunity for students to apply, elaborate, expand, and refine concepts through engagement with phenomena.
  • Provide appropriate instruction in science discipline-specific English.