• by Nilka Avilés, Ed.D. • IDRA Newsletter • April 2013 •

Dr Nilka Aviles, Ed.D.There is a significant shift in today’s population. Demographers predict that “minorities” will comprise the majority of schoolchildren by 2023, the majority of working-age Americans by 2039, and the majority of all Americans by 2042. Even though such demographic changes will vary across the country, today’s young people can expect to live in communities and work in organizations that are much more diverse than in the past. Consequently, the ability to thrive in a diverse environment will be among the top competencies and work-related skills in the workplace.

This change in the population has challenged schools to teach a more diverse group of students and prepare them to collaborate in numerous job settings to function in a diverse society. Unfortunately, many teachers do not feel prepared to meet these challenges to effectively address culturally and linguistically diverse learners in prekindergarten-12 pipeline.

To be successful in a diverse classroom, the most effective teaching and learning mechanism emerges when mutually affirming relationships exist between the teacher and students, more so for English language learners (ELLs). We know that when affirmations are communicated, they strengthen the relationships and make them flourish along with the bonds, ties and understandings that have been formed. The foundation of these bonds begins when learners believe that they are recognized and acknowledged for who they are and are respected as such.

Similarly, ELL students need to feel that they are intrinsically valued, cared for, can be in a safe environment where they will be engaged, can take risks, can ask questions, make mistakes and learn from the mistakes without fear of being ridiculed. In an environment where recognition and affirmation is inherently valued, ELL students are skilled enough to ask questions about the world around them and communicate their understandings in the most appropriate way, one free of inhibitions.

In diverse classrooms where there are ELL students, teachers often ask themselves what they can do to help students learn the English language while teaching the content that is required on top of preparing all the students to meet standards of a rigorous curriculum and state assessments. There are many strategies that, if adopted and practiced effectively, will benefit ELLs and all the other students in the classroom.

IDRA’s publication, Science Instructional Strategies for English Learners – A Guide for Elementary and Secondary Grades, presents seven umbrella research-supported strategies for the science classroom (Villarreal, et al., 2012). This article describes one of the strategies: foster mutually affirming relationships, curriculum rigor and relevance in successful bilingual and ESL science. The strategies also can be used as a base for teacher professional development at both the elementary and secondary levels.

The first step is to learn all students’ names. While seeming obvious, this doesn’t always happen. The teacher must practice and pronounce the names as closely as possible showing the student that as a teacher they value and respect their identity for who they are rather than changing the student’s name to make it “easier” for the teacher.

Secondly, ELL students benefit greatly when they are paired or grouped with non-ELLs, providing opportunities for students to develop oral language along with content knowledge. Students need to be exposed to listening, speaking, reading and writing activities so that, among their peers and group discussions, they can participate in specific tasks given ample wait-time to think and process information in a way by which they can succeed with the help of their classmates. Resources, such as pictures with the use of both native and English language, are critical to improve the understanding of academic language addressing specific unit vocabulary words. Echevarria, Vogt, & Short (2007) have shown that an integrated approach to teaching science and language skills enables ELL students to learn English through the context of science instruction while being engaged in meaningful activities and opportunities to use English cooperatively to address scientific investigations. The above also will help to prepare all students for the workplace by using and developing their collaborative skills.

In the 21st century, rigor is defined as not only a challenging curriculum but also an engaging curriculum, one that has teachers pushing students to learn and make connections to personal and meaningful experiences of the world around them. The relevance of what is taught in the classroom needs to be reinforced with real-world experiences for learning to make sense. Teachers need to plan lessons where students can develop their capacity to understand content that is complex, challenging, inspiring, thought-provoking and exciting. Students need to be challenged to make their own discoveries and expand their understanding about how the world works. ELL students as well as non-ELL students have the ability to learn to manage difficult content and work with difficult ideas provided that successful strategies can be intertwined in the lesson cycle allowing students to construct meaning of the concepts being taught.

Teachers also can use the following considerations.

  • Use science activities that are inquiry or project based, requiring students to develop and produce their own answers.
  • Have students use the results of their answers to explore ways they can make a difference in the world around them by making connections.
  • Ensure science lessons contain elements from different disciplines, relevant to real-world experiences, encouraging students to link what they have learned reinforcing and building on previous knowledge.
  • Ask students to examine their own emotions concerning science problems or controversial issues taking a position where they can voice their opinions based on knowledge gained.
  • Give students access to important key words and academic language using visuals, manipulative activities and total physical response to understand the science content.
  • Set up interactive content word walls to reinforce science content along with the highlight of important nouns, verbs and/or prepositions for the specific lesson units.
  • Provide students with sentence stems to facilitate speaking and writing skills.
  • Use alternative assessments for the ELL students.
  • Allow enough wait-time to allow students’ minds to process information.
  • Provide academic vocabulary in the students’ primary language along with the English language and review cognates that will help them transition from one language to the other.
  • Tap background knowledge and scaffolding to develop language.
  • Document and monitor students’ growth.

Teachers need to simultaneously use multiple strategies that will help build language and content knowledge, making sure that students have paramount opportunities to succeed in the core subjects, in this case particularly while learning science. In addition, teachers need to provide meaningful and genuine support systems, such as engaging tutorials, to help students organize and summarize information. Teachers also need to promote mentoring sessions to encourage and foster ELL students’ social and academic participation providing ample opportunities for them to succeed, reinforcing teaching and learning.

Parents and community members are an important asset in linking the home environment with the school environment and its culture. Providing engaging science-related lesson activities for the home along with science night, science camps and other engaging opportunities are some examples where teachers can share what the students are learning. Furthermore, providing workshops for ELLs’ parents to reinforce learning at home is vital to enhance and increase students’ academic performance. Educating linguistically and culturally diverse students requires key strategies, meaningful communication, and interactions that are supported by research and practice.


Hansen, L. “Strategies for ELL Success,” Science and Children (2006) 43(4), 22-25.

Medina-Jerez, W., & D.B. Clark,  A. Medina,  F. Ramirez-Marin. “Science for ELLs: Rethinking our Approach,” The Science Teacher (2007) Vol. 74 Issue 3, p. 52.

Olson, J.K., & J.M. Levis,  R. Vann,  K. Richardson Bruna. “Enhancing Science for ELLs: Science Strategies for English Language Learners That Benefit All Students,Science and Children (2009) 46(5), 46-48.

Strong, R.W., & H.F. Silver,  M.J. Perini. Teaching What Matters Most: Standards and Strategies for Raising Student Achievement (Alexandria, Va.: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2001).

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).

Nilka Avilés, Ed.D, is a senior education associate in IDRA Field Services. Comments and questions may be directed to her via email at feedback@idra.org.

[©2013, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the April 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.]