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English Learners in STEM Subjects

By Kate Falk

Posted on 2019-01-08

Conducting a review of the research literature on science education with English learners (ELs) would be a demanding task. Reimaging what is possible for ELs in science education would be an even more demanding task. Consider the enormity of the task to reimagine what it takes to transform the education system in order to promote learning in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) as well as language for ELs. This was the charge for the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) (2018) consensus study, English Learners in STEM Subjects: Transforming Classrooms, Schools, and Lives.

The report places ELs at the center and starts with a description of the EL student population and their performance in STEM subjects (see more details in Chapter 2 of the report). Then, the report describes contemporary views on language and each of the STEM subjects and how children, especially ELs, learn each of these subjects. Based on these contemporary views, the report describes how language and STEM subjects can be integrated for ELs (see more details in Chapter 3 of the report).

Based on these core ideas about ELs and the five subjects, the remainder of the report describes the research literature on how multiple components at multiple levels of the education system– instructional practices and curriculum materials (Chapter 4), schools working with families and communities (Chapter 5), teacher education (Chapter 6), assessments (Chapter 7), and education policies (Chapter 8)–promote language and STEM learning with ELs.

In this blog, I highlight several key issues about ELs and integrating language and STEM subjects to improve the learning outcomes of ELs. (For an overview of the NASEM report, readers would enjoy reading the blog titled, Reimagining STEM for English Learners by K. Renae Pullen .

The description about ELs presents two key themes: (a) heterogeneity of the EL student population and (b) inconsistency of educational policies with ELs. I would like to highlight a few prominent issues that may surprise STEM educators (and readers will find other issues in the report).

The report states, “Against common intuition, the majority of ELs in the country are U.S. born.” These long-term ELs have been receiving English language development services for at least 6 years and yet have not met reclassification criteria for their state. These students are typically English users, not English learners. This demographic information may surprise STEM educators who tend to think of ELs as newcomers, those foreign-born ELs who have recently arrived in the US.

The report goes on to say, “Because states have different criteria to implement legislation regarding the definition of ELs, whether a student is regarded or not as being an EL depends, at least to some extent, on the state in which a given student lives.” Only recently was there an effort to develop a common definition of ELs across the states. Currently, EL definitions vary across states.

The report continues that classification and reclassification of students as ELs “varies considerably across states, and even across districts within states.” Although the state ELP assessment is the sole criterion in many states, some states with large EL populations require other criteria including academic achievement measured by standardized test scores and/or grades in English language arts and/or mathematics, thus preventing ELs from having access to STEM subjects.

The report describes “the gap that can’t go away.” As ELs become proficient in English, they are reclassified and no longer count in the EL category for accountability purposes, “creating an achievement gap that must persist” and overestimating the gap between ELs and non-ELs.

How Can Language and STEM Subjects Be Integrated With English Learners?

Integration of language and STEM subjects with ELs can be considered in terms of (a) federal legislation and standards and (b) contemporary views on language and STEM learning.

In terms of educational policies, federal legislation since No Child Left Behind of 2001 has called for alignment between content standards and English language proficiency (ELP) standards. The Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 mandates that “the State has adopted English language proficiency standards that . . . are aligned with the challenging State academic standards” (1111(b)(1)(F)). While mathematics and science standards have been evolving for almost 3 decades, there has been no agreement on ELP standards. This lack of agreement on what counts as language and how ELs learn (English) language presents challenges to establishing alignment between content standards and ELP standards.

In terms of theory and practice, there have been parallel shifts in science (and mathematics) education and second language acquisition. In science education, traditional views have focused on individual learners’ mastery of discrete elements of science content, whereas contemporary views emphasize that students make sense of phenomena and design solutions to problems as scientists and engineers do in their work (knowledge-in-use). In second language acquisition, traditional views have focused on discrete elements of vocabulary (lexicon) and grammar (syntax) to be internalized by learners, whereas contemporary views emphasize that language is a set of dynamic meaning-making practices learned through participation in social contexts (language-in-use). Recognizing these instructional shifts as mutually supportive can promote rigorous science learning and rich language use with ELs.

The report highlights that “the aims of content learning and language learning are closely tied to each other and are best addressed in parallel or in conjunction, rather than separately or sequentially.” The report also highlights that “language proficiency is not a prerequisite for content instruction, but an outcome of effective content instruction.” With its charge to reimagine what it takes to transform the education system in order to promote STEM learning as well as language learning with ELs, the report offers promising practices for teaching, learning, and assessment in language and STEM subjects with ELs.

Okhee Lee is a professor in the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development at New York University. She was a member of the NGSS writing team and served as leader for the NGSS Diversity and Equity team. She served on The Committee on Supporting English Learners in STEM.

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