• by Veronica Betancourt, M.A. • IDRA Newsletter • February 2013 •

Veronica BetancourtAs the phase of the school year begins when teachers get ready for upcoming standardized tests, it is important to keep in mind that now, more than ever, lessons should be intentionally designed from an asset-based, or value-driven, perspective. Teachers should not allow themselves to fall victim to the pressures of “preparing” students for such lessons. When asset-based lessons are implemented year-round, there is no need to prepare students, because it has been happening all along!

It is important to note why this type of lesson design is most beneficial for culturally and linguistically diverse students. Subjects like math and science have an even greater challenge to successfully support a diverse classroom. Students seem to lose their positive stance toward certain subjects, such as science, as they get older and move up into secondary settings (Neathery,1997). This is supported by brain research, which purports that cognition is shaped by emotions thus significantly affecting learners’ cognitive engagement (Jensen, 2003).

However, when teachers make a concerted effort to continuously value students’ perspectives and knowledge of science as they plan and deliver their lessons, they will lower students’ affective filter and increase their willingness to engage with the subject (Alsop, 2005).

IDRA recently outlined seven umbrella research-supported strategies to help English learners achieve in the science classroom. The strategies are presented in detail with their research base in Science Instructional Strategies for English Learners – A Guide for Elementary and Secondary Grades (Villarreal, et al., 2012), which is available from IDRA. This article describes one of the strategies: design asset-based science lessons for culturally and linguistically diverse classrooms.

Now the question begs to ask: So how do I create this type of lesson?

One of the most critical pieces in considering an emotionally engaging, value-driven science lesson is to reflect on how the content standards, activities chosen for the lesson, and performance assessments interrelate to support each other as well as how students’ culture and language levels will affect perceived outcomes for the lesson. It is imperative to begin with the end in mind. In addition to the fact that the learning outcomes drive the lesson design, consideration for student diversity will help ensure student academic success. When students’ culture and learner identity to science is respected, their engagement increases in the learning process (Purdy, 2008).

For example, let’s assume students are learning about the cause and effect of natural disasters on the environment and human populations. The teacher can begin the lesson, prior to any introduction of the topic, with a visual representation of a natural disaster, such as a hurricane along a coastal town, and ask students to write down observations, inferences and emotions about that picture in their interactive notebooks or journals. Doing this engagement activity immediately values students’ own experiences and leaves room for linguistic negotiation for students learning the English language to utilize words at their own level of understanding and ability. This type of activity specifically draws from students’ background knowledge and cultural experiences, thus giving the teacher a platform of formative assessment to determine the level of science understanding that students’ bring, and it can further drive the direction of the lesson.

Furthermore, students are given the opportunity to organize their understandings and thoughts about this natural disaster by incorporating the design and use of charts. Incorporating charts, such as organizing thoughts into categories, enables the learner to demonstrate an understanding of the topic at hand.

Once students have completed this task, the teacher can have students share with a neighbor, then switch with a tablemate for review and discussion, and then complete a collective chart through whole class conversation of their ideas. This method allows for verbal negotiation of students’ ideas, perceptions and knowledge; it reinforces any academic words used in expressing themselves; and it provides multiple platforms for learning science and language simultaneously.

Essentially, the activity becomes responsive to student thinking while addressing the curriculum. For the teacher, this engagement activity provides immediate feedback with students’ levels of understanding and science knowledge. And, in turn, it gives students an opportunity to capitalize on their emotional state to connect to science by creating a safe space for learning in a non-stressful, value-driven setting.

As educators, we must make every effort to be conscientious about not only what we are required to teach according to state and national standards but also how we ensure the lesson is responsive to the culturally and linguistically diverse population of students we serve. This does not, in any way, equate to simplifying a lesson. Rather, it promotes an intellectual interaction between learner and subject as the teacher facilitates and pushes students cognitively to engage meaningfully with science.

Listen to our podcast episode: Affective Lessons are Effective Lessons (Science for English Learners) – February 25, 2013

See handout listing the seven strategies for instruction of English learners in science

Science Instructional Strategies for English Learners ~ A Guide for Elementary and Secondary Grades is a practical resource with seven research-based strategies for instruction of English learners in science with teaching learning premises, research support, essential teacher competencies, and steps for strategy implementation – along with a matrix of techniques for implementation.

See excerpts from Minority Women in Science – Forging the  Way
• Marianita Chee’s Story
• Esther Nelson’s Story
• Sample Lesson: “Growing Bacteria in a Culture” (pdf) 


Alsop, S. Beyond Cartesian Dualism: Encountering Affect in the Teaching and Learning of Science (Thousand Oaks, Calif: Springer, 2005).

Jensen, E. Tools for Engagement: Managing Emotional States for Learner Success (San Diego, Calif: The Brain Store, Inc., 2003).

Neathery, M.L. “Elementary and Secondary Students’ Perceptions Toward Science: Correlations with Gender, Ethnicity, Ability, Grade, and Science Achievement,” Electronic Journal of Science Education (1997) 2(1).

Purdy, J. “Inviting Conversations: Meaningful Talk about Texts for English Language Learners,” Literacy (2008) 42(1), 44-51.

Villarreal, A., & V. Betancourt, K. Grayson, R. Rodríguez. Science Instructional Strategies for English Learners – A Guide for Elementary and Secondary Grades (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, 2012).

Veronica Betancourt, M.A., is an IDRA education associate. Comments and questions may be directed to her via email at feedback@idra.org.

[©2013, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the February 2013 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]