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Toward Equity for Multilingual Learners

The Standards offer a new opportunity to engage multilingual learners (MLLs) in science

Science and Children—March/April 2023 (Volume 60, Issue 4)

By Emily Reigh, Emily Adah Miller, Maria Chiara Simani, and Alice Severson

Toward Equity for Multilingual Learners

In the 10 years since the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) were released, K–12 science teachers have been figuring out how to extend related learning opportunities to all students, including multilingual learners (MLLs) who are new to speaking English. Elementary schools often prioritize math and English language arts, the subjects that are the primary focus of state testing, and may consequently pull students out of science for English language development. When MLLs are in the mainstream classroom, teachers may wonder how to support them in expansive forms of scientific sensemaking, including science practices (Bang et al. 2017). Without time and support to develop new pedagogical approaches, teachers may continue to use traditional strategies like structured language exercises, which often do not promote sensemaking.

So, how can we support MLLs in English-centered classrooms to develop language in ways that give them full access to NGSS-aligned learning? Imagine that you are introducing a unit on force and motion to your Grade 3 class through the phenomenon of a stomp rocket flying through the air. As you engage students with the phenomenon, what language would you introduce to them, and when? What activities would you implement to help them to develop language as they make sense of the phenomenon?

In this article, we show how the NGSS offer a new opportunity to see language development and science learning as mutually supportive, an approach that has the potential to support equity in science learning for MLLs (Reigh and Miller 2020). We present a sample activity structure for introducing phenomena that allows students to simultaneously develop language and engage in scientific sensemaking. This activity contrasts with traditional approaches that teach language before students engage in science activities, through strategies such as engaging in chants to build word recognition, pre-teaching vocabulary, or practicing certain sentence structures. These strategies seem to imply that students do not have sufficient language to engage meaningfully with science and frame language as a “prerequisite” for science learning. Over the last 10 years, however, we have come to better understand the many ways that MLLs can draw from their existing language resources, like their home languages, gestures, pictures, and other aspects of their communicative repertoires, to engage in science learning.

Changing Views

Whereas previous science standards focused primarily on science concepts, the NGSS include eight science and engineering practices (SEPs). The inclusion of the SEPs marks a movement from seeing science as something that you know to seeing it as something that you do in collaboration with others. This orientation aligns with the view of language development called language-in-use, which describes how students develop language through engaging in collaborative and purposeful activity.

Science offers a meaningful context for language development; students use language to investigate natural phenomena through engaging in collaborative practices such as modeling, constructing explanations, and arguing from evidence (Alvarez, Capitelli, De Loney, and Valdés 2020; Quinn, Lee, and Valdés 2012). Importantly, students can engage in these practices, even if they are new to speaking English, by using their existing language resources (e.g., home language). Through their engagement, new language resources will emerge as they engage with phenomena, classroom materials, and their peers (Alvarez, Capitelli, De Loney, and Valdés 2020). Engaging in science practices therefore represents an opportunity for language development (Reigh and Miller 2020).

Over the last 10 years, the language-in-use approach is increasingly reflected in a range of English Language Development (ELD) policy documents, such as the California ELD Standards, the World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment (WIDA) 2020 Framework, and the Texas ELD standards. These documents outline what students do with language as they engage in academic learning, including activity that is aligned with the SEPs. For example, the California ELD Standards call for students to engage in collaboration through offering opinions, arguments, and counterarguments, and the WIDA Framework calls for students to engage in key language uses like explaining. By shifting away from grammar as the focus of ELD, they offer new opportunities for language to be developed through engaging in scientific activity.

Seeing science and language as intertwined has the potential to support equity for MLLs. By setting our goals in terms of what students are actually able to do with language—rather than the use of specific words or grammatical structures—we can recognize and leverage the linguistic assets that these students bring to their learning. A rapidly growing body of literature shows how students can use their existing language resources, including their home language, to engage in robust forms of scientific practices (Pierson, Clark, and Brady 2021). Studies also show that students’ scientific understandings are improved if they begin their learning by freely engaging in sensemaking using the types of language that are comfortable to them and only afterwards are introduced to specific forms of disciplinary language (e.g., Brown 2021). These studies demonstrate that language need not be framed as a barrier to engagement in disciplinary activity.

Although research has made advances toward removing barriers for MLLs, new pedagogical approaches are needed to translate these ideas into classroom practice. In the next section, we present an activity structure for introducing phenomena that allows students to develop their science ideas and language simultaneously. The observation of phenomena provides a shared context in which language can emerge. As you read, notice that the teacher does not provide students with language to use. Rather, the teacher creates opportunities for students to use language as they discuss the phenomenon with their peers.

Learning Through Phenomena

We illustrate our activity structure (see Table 1) with an example from a project-based science unit that addresses NGSS performance expectation 3-PS2-1, “Plan and conduct an investigation to provide evidence of the effects of balanced and unbalanced forces on the motion of an object.” In the unit, students design a toy and describe its motion (find open-source unit materials at In this lesson, which occurs early in the unit, students observe the phenomenon of a stomp rocket flying through the air and work together to explain its motion.

Imagine a student who is new to speaking English. As they engage in this activity structure, they could use the English they know, pictures in their model (see Figure 1), gestures, and even their home language to share their initial thinking. Their peers give them real-time feedback by asking questions, chiming in while they explain, and using each other’s models as resources for communication. As students share their thinking with their peers, new language emerges as needed for students to describe the causes for movement of the rocket (e.g., the words direction and speed). Students are encouraged to “pick up” new language and use it with a successive partner.

Figure 1
Examples of students’ initial models.

Examples of students’ initial models.

Using Students’ Existing Resources

The NGSS push us to consider how effectively a student communicates their scientific thinking rather than the “correctness” of their English. For example, describing cause-and-effect relationships is key to the development of an explanatory model. In the following excerpt, notice how Ignacio effectively uses his existing language resources to share his thinking about what caused the rocket to go up and come back down in a parabolic path.

Teacher: Why do you think that?

Ignacio: Because gravity is…stop more like this. [lifts pencil up and slams it down against desk]

Teacher: Gravity stops…it from going up?

Ignacio: Gravity, it make the thing fell.

Marcus: Why do you think the rocket goes up?

Ignacio: Because air push it up… [points up with fingers of one hand] because the air is more stronger…

Marcus: Than the gravity?

Ignacio: Cuando ese… like the gummies, when you throw it [slings hand to the side as if throwing something to indicate the force of throwing]

Through gestures and material objects like the pencil and desk, Ignacio explains that gravity caused the rocket to move downward until it is stopped by a surface. He is challenged by his classmate Marcus to explain why the rocket went up in the first place. Ignacio identifies air as the cause of the upward motion, which he demonstrates with his finger. He also begins to share a key disciplinary idea about unbalanced forces, saying that one is “stronger than” another. He talks about air giving a push, just like when he throws a gummy. He clearly has sophisticated ideas and ample language to express them.

Explicitly Introducing Language

After students explain shared experiences on their own terms, specific language can be presented as it becomes useful to the class. For example, the teacher could ask Ignacio to share his idea about air being “stronger” with the class and use it to build toward their collective understanding of unbalanced forces. Later, the teacher might have students write a formal explanation of what they have learned. At this point, sentence frames that reflect the ways that cause-and-effect are communicated in writing could be useful (e.g., “_____ caused the rocket to _____”). Importantly, these specific language forms are introduced after students have freely engaged in sensemaking.

Supporting Equity

In this activity, MLLs have immediate access to NGSS-aligned science learning rather than being held back until they develop specific language. This arrangement is more equitable than pulling students out of science to pre-teach them language, an approach may undermine students’ inquiry and, importantly, may not actually be supportive of their grade-level disciplinary learning. Moreover, the language resources that MLLs bring to their learning, including home language, gestures, and other forms of communication, are elevated as assets for engaging in scientific sensemaking, which supports their participation and sense of belonging in the classroom.


This work is supported in part by the California Science Project.

Emily Reigh ( is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Berkeley. Emily Adah Miller is an assistant professor of science education at the University of Georgia, Athens. Maria Chiara Simani is the Executive Director of the California Science Project at the University of California, Riverside. Alice Severson is an elementary science teacher at Huegel Elementary in the Madison Metropolitan School District.


Alvarez, L., S. Capitelli, M.L. De Loney, and G. Valdés. 2020. English learners as agents: Collaborative sense-making in an NGSS-aligned science classroom. In Reconceptualizing the role of critical dialogue in American classrooms, eds. A. Kibler, G. Valdés, and A. Walqui, 78–104. Routledge.

Bang, M., B. Brown, A. Calabrese Barton, A.S., Rosebery, and B. Warren. 2017. Toward more equitable learning in science. In Helping students make sense of the world using next generation science and engineering practices, eds. C. Schwarz, C. Passmore, and B. Reiser, 33–58. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Brown, B.A. 2021. Science in the city: Culturally relevant STEM education. Cambridge: Harvard Education Press.

Pierson, A.E., D.B. Clark, and C.E. Brady. 2021. Scientific modeling and translanguaging: A multilingual and multimodal approach to support science learning and engagement. Science Education 105 (4): 776–813.

Quinn, H., O. Lee, and G. Valdés. 2012. Language demands and opportunities in relation to Next Generation Science Standards for English language learners: What teachers need to know. Commissioned papers on language and literacy issues in the Common Core State Standards and Next Generation Science Standards 94 (2012): 32–32.

Reigh, E., and E. Miller. 2020. Viewing science as practice: Implications for the language development and inclusion of English Learners, Proceedings of International Conference of the Learning Sciences (Vol. 4, pp. 2269–2272). International Society of the Learning Sciences.

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