January/February 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 4

Integrating Science and English Language Development

Posted: Tuesday, February 1st, 2011

by Valerie Joyner

Teachers frequently see children light up with excitement about science activities, and nothing motivates language development like the hunger to express exciting new ideas.  For the past two years the Exploratorium Institute for Inquiry (IFI) and the Sonoma Valley Unified School District (SVUSD) have teamed up to explore the powerful connections between language acquisition and science.  Armed with funding from the U.S. Department of Education, the Vadasz Family Foundation, and the Sonoma Valley Education Foundation, El Verano Elementary School has brought science lessons into the mainstream of English Language Development.

The IFI and El Verano School have been working together to develop a model set of hands-on inquiry-based science lessons that actively promote English language development.  The program uses open-ended science investigations along with science notebooks and oral presentations to promote academic and conversational language.

SVUSD presents a perfect challenge scenario for testing the integration of language and science learning, with a district wide population of 58 percent English Language Learners (ELL). El Verano, specifically, has 70 percent ELL students and is now in year five of Program Improvement status of the federal No Child Left Behind law.  It’s a tribute to this extraordinary program that as of 2009, the school and all its subgroups have met state academic growth targets.

“Inquiry is a wonderful way to teach kids.  It honors who they are, where they are, and what they are thinking,” says El Verano principal Maite Iturri.  “It gives them a reason to want to know the language.  Language happens in context, by having those experiences in the classroom.”

Craig Madison, a third grade teacher at El Verano, states, “Science is this case is the vehicle for (English language development).  It is so mutually beneficial.  It’s giving the students a reason why they should know a meaning and why they should speak—because they have something that has a deep, rich meaning to think about.”

Last year, the students in Madison’s class were handed flashlights and mirrors and … the classroom lights went out.  The students were given time to explore the concept of light reflection on their own.  “We know kids are curious, we know they like to play,” says Madison.  “When they are allowed to discover things on their own, they really retain that.”

After the initial exploratory period, the students worked in small groups to determine a question they wanted to investigate.  They took ownership of the direction their investigation would take.  Students put together their own lesson with an educated hypothesis and steps they would follow.  They made discoveries and put together a poster outline of their findings.  Their final task was to give a presentation of their findings.

“It’s fun.  You can experience stuff you don’t really know about,” said one of Madison’s students.  “My science projects has helped me learn to speak English better at school because I have new words.”

The idea of integrating science and English Language Development is not new.  Research has shown that language development in students can be stifled by their inability to access and comprehend science terms and concepts in reading, writing, and through discourse.  There has also been a connection between strong language development and the use of rich hands-on science activities with an inquiry-based approach.  These techniques give students opportunities to first experience the science they’re learning, before being asked to comprehend, apply, and discuss it.

These pioneering local teachers, fresh from a successful launch, plan to integrate the program into all the schools in Sonoma Valley.  Over the course of the next three years, teachers in the pilot group will disseminate the program to 90 district colleagues in the form of workshops, videos, and classroom visits.  The Institute for Inquiry will then teach educators how to use the program through the variety of workshops and forums they provide to school districts nationwide.

The thrill of discovery inherent in science exploration goes to the very core of the purpose of early education: learning to learn and learning to love learning.  Now science educators can look forward to another powerful program for igniting the love of learning in our students.

Valerie Joyner teaches elementary school in Petaluma and is CSTA’s region 1 director.

Written by Valerie Joyner

Valerie Joyner

Valerie Joyner is a retired elementary science educator and is CSTA’s Primary (grades K-2) Director.

2 Responses

  1. This should be a shot in the arm for the state’s ELD program and elementary science curriculum, which has been on the back burner for years. Since math and language arts have taken much of the prime time for schools in the program improvement status arena, it would make sense to combine both curriculum areas!

  2. I’d love to find an update on this work! The NSTA has an interesting article (possibly related?) and things look good.

    http://www.nsta.org/highschool/connections/201206Zwiep.pdf

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