January/February 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 4

Let’s Give Them Science to Talk About

Posted: Tuesday, January 7th, 2014

by Dana Goldberg

Think back to when you first learned about magnets, bubbles, and reflections in school. Describing what you saw and experienced could be exciting, but also challenging. Now imagine trying to do it in a new language.

Nearly 60 percent of all students in Sonoma Valley Unified School District (SVUSD) are English-language learners, almost all of them native Spanish speakers. Integrating English Language Development and Science, a program created in partnership with the Exploratori­um’s Institute for Inquiry, is building a bridge between learning science and acquir­ing English language skills. This professional development program operates with teachers from all five elementary schools in SVUSD.

This innovative program honors the intellectual capacity of all students, regard­less of their language level, and focuses on inquiry as a learning approach. Participating teachers attend a summer institute and school-year study groups at the Exploratorium receive materials that support lessons about water, magnetism, erosion, electricity, and more. One ground­ing idea is “let’s give them science to talk about,” that is, science that students can see, touch, and describe is science that gets kids excited. Teachers pose or elicit questions that their students are eager to investigate: What do you see? What do you wonder? How could we try to answer these questions?

Photo by Sally Weis

Photo by Sally Weis

“Using language in meaningful ways is what helps kids acquire language—not just learning tenses and grammar,” says Fred Stein, Senior Science Educator at the Explor­atorium. “When they’re asking questions and describing their findings, even if they don’t know the appropriate verb tense, they’re com­municating.” Students get to practice Eng­lish, and their teachers get to support their students’ language development

Hands-on science provides a rich oppor­tunity for language development as students speak, write, and read to build their under­standing and represent their ideas. Working together, students use different parts of English to describe their discoveries.

This content-centric model keeps stu­dents curious and engaged, as their teachers encourage them to explain their observations, hypotheses, and evidence. “These require fairly sophisticated ways of thinking about and using language,” says Fred, “but it’s very natural in this context.” The teachers also use strategies that take into account students’ varying language levels and abilities.

The ultimate goal of the program is not to privilege language acquisition over mastering grade-appropriate science content, but to genuinely integrate both. “Expressing your questions and ideas and dialoguing with others advances your own thinking. Having all this great stuff to communicate about allows students to practice language with increasing levels of complexity,” says Fred.

The motivation for the program came, in a roundabout way, from No Child Left Behind. NCLB requires schools with children with lower English-language proficiency to provide dedicated time for language development—often at the expense of science, art, and social studies content. Maite Iturri, the principal at El Verano elementary school, (eventually the project’s pilot school), didn’t want to deprive students of interesting, engaging content until they had mastered English-language fundamentals. Instead of seeing the content as taking time away from English-language development, she hypothesized that it could instead foster it—with students learning the content as well.

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This idea is gaining currency as research supports a shift from focusing on isolated vocabulary and grammar skills development to engaging language learners in meaningful activities that encourage a more conversation­al approach. Language expert and Stanford education professor Kenji Hakuta says, “The more you use [language] to articulate complex subject matter, the deeper your understanding is going to get of that subject matter.”

The Integrating English Language Development and Science program is halfway through its five-year grant. As the program expands to include all of the district’s 90 teachers, the Exploratorium and the SVUSD are striving to make an exponential impact. “We’re not just looking to create better English speakers through this program,” says Fred. “We’re also hoping to create more engaged and inquisitive learners.”

Integrating English Language Development and Science is funded by the US Department of Educa­tion’s Investing in Innovation Fund, the Sonoma Valley Education Foundation, the Vadasz Family Foundation, and the Mary A. Crocker Trust. For more information on the Exploratorium’s Institute for Inquiry, visit www.exploratorium.edu/ifi.

Dana Goldberg is the Managing Editor, Institutional Media at the Exploratorium and was invited to contribute to CCS by CSTA member Valerie Joyner

Written by Guest Contributor

From time to time CSTA receives contributions from guest contributors. The opinions and views expressed by these contributors are not necessarily those of CSTA. By publishing these articles CSTA does not make any endorsements or statements of support of the author or their contribution, either explicit or implicit. All links to outside sources are subject to CSTA’s Disclaimer Policy: http://www.classroomscience.org/disclaimer.

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