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Elementary Science—Best Practices for All Students

By Cindy Workosky

Posted on 2019-03-21

Envision a room filled with noise, excited whispers, and students shouting across tables. Piles of tinfoil, plastic cups, scissors, string, and tape are scattered around the room. Paper, pencils, and notebooks filled with sketches are strewn across groups of desks. The lingering scent of melting chocolate pervades the room, as does an electric feeling of excitement among students.

This room may seem chaotic, but actually, it represents the best learning. If you were to ask students what is happening, they would describe their goal: to create a wrapper that would prevent a chocolate bar from melting. They would outline their plan and materials list, and discuss the revisions they made after collaborating with their tablemates. The students have spent weeks investigating how different substances react to heat and cold and testing different materials, which has given them content knowledge about changes in matter and the skills to design, test, and redesign a wrapper that even Hershey’s would envy.

What student wouldn’t be excited to have this activity be part of their school day? What teacher wouldn’t want to provide this type of lasting learning experience for his or her students?

How could a teacher accomplish this? The answer is both simple and complex. Simply doing science is easy; it’s something that teachers do already. But helping students learn science using the three dimensions as recommended in the Next Generation Science Standards requires more thought and planning. The standards include disciplinary core ideas, crosscutting concepts, and science practices, and students need to be able to access all three. But where to start?

Getting involved with science is the access point for all students, including both English language learners and those who already are proficient in English. To give students access to language, we need to build on experience. In many cases, children are not interacting with the world, so teachers need to provide these experiences. Choosing a phenomenon that is familiar to students is vital in giving them an authentic learning experience.

Starting here will spark students’ interest and increase their engagement with the work, as well as foster their independence while doing it. This connection gives students a foundation on which they can build language skills and develop ideas. Beginning this process of inquiry allows students time to use their home language as they converse with their peers, sketch and label their thoughts, and write questions. Not only are these skills critical for every learner, but they are also part of the English Language Proficiency standards (ELPs). Students are using the inquiry skills developed through the science and engineering practices to make sense of and understand the phenomenon, and therefore understand their world more deeply.

Students will develop a deeper understanding of the phenomenon as they ask questions and make observations, but they will have to show their thinking. Modeling is a scientific practice that offers an ideal entry point for building language around student thought. Students of any ability level can use their sketches and language to describe what they believe is happening with the phenomenon. This is the perfect opportunity to scaffold to add language to the students’ work. Students add language to their ideas, rather than  struggling to formulate an idea around a foreign language.

This offers students an invaluable learning experience that validates their ideas and empowers them to learn more. It gives students a solid understanding and allows them to believe they can and want to use the language developed. They take pride in their discoveries and pleasure in being able to describe their model to their peers, instead of being fearful and not fully understanding.

Many students who have English as a second language lack the confidence to share their thinking with peers. With the gradual growth of their ideas through experiencing the phenomenon, modeling and revising it, and working with partners and groups, students are much better prepared to discuss their thinking. By the time they have synthesized their learning, they have practiced many different ways to show their thinking and express their ideas, and are much more confident and willing to share their ideas and reasoning with their peers.

Bringing science into the classroom creates a community of diligent workers and communicators. Students work harder because they are interested, engaged, and active. Students share more because they have multiple opportunities to access the academic vocabulary and practice it through investigations and partner and class discussions. The science practices are not just best practices for English Language Learners, they are also best practices for all learners.


Kayla JuryKayla Jury is a second grade teacher and professional development leader in the Beaverton (OR) School District. She has a Master’s of Science Education and is a Certified Science Instructional Specialist. Alongside a team of colleagues in Beaverton School District, Kayla has created a Next Generation Science based curriculum for the primary grades. She strives each day to provide integrated inquiry curriculum that is authentic and matters to all of her students. 



Note: This article was featured in the March issue of Next Gen Navigator, a monthly e-newsletter from NSTA delivering information, insights, resources, and professional learning opportunities for science educators by science educators on the Next Generation Science Standards and three-dimensional instruction.  Click here to sign up to receive the Navigator every month.

Visit NSTA’s NGSS@NSTA Hub for hundreds of vetted classroom resourcesprofessional learning opportunities, publicationsebooks and more; connect with your teacher colleagues on the NGSS listservs (members can sign up here); and join us for discussions around NGSS at an upcoming conference.

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