Science Classroom Strategies for English Learners – Learning with the iPad and Other Tablets

Veronica Betancourt, M.A., and Paula Johnson, M.A.

Technology is ever evolving in exponential leaps and bounds. Just a few years ago, the iPad debuted. Soon, we can be expecting the iPad 3 to make its way into our hearts. So what does this mean for educators and the field of education as it exists today? Schools are encouraged to ensure we educate our children to be globally competitive, yet the structure and ideology of schools has remained the same for decades. As such, a vast majority of classrooms simply become contexts of unproductive learning (Sarason, 2004).

IDRA’s new 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: maximize use of technology in delivery of effective science and EL instruction and use Internet resources to supplement and enrich instruction of EL students.

Technology has shifted the ways in which children engage and learn. Web 2.0 tools, such as blogs, wikis and social media sites, thrust the Internet from a platform of receptive communication (sit and get information) to one of interactive communication (dynamic, real-time interaction) and has created an urgency for us to engage learners in a manner that maximizes the resulting benefits. Capitalizing on students’ knowledge of navigating technology for social interaction can be transferred into an academic setting that creates ongoing opportunities for application of critical thinking skills toward real-world issues that promote real-world solutions.

The question that now resonates is: How can we use iPads and other tablets to effectively generate a dynamic learning environment for maximum engagement in rigorous instruction? Rigor has traditionally been equated with a mastery of the content and was only available to a select few. But there must be a transformation of this definition to include applicable skills in conjunction with content knowledge in order to effectively and efficiently respond to the dynamic world and changing circumstances we face (Bellanca & Brandt, 2010). This translates into understanding that rigor requires us to challenge students beyond their comfort zone emotionally, intellectually and academically.

In a three-part series of articles, we are going to share how use of the iPad and other tablets can be maximized in multiple contexts: learning with the iPad, teaching with the iPad, and leading with the iPad.

Learning with the tablets can be maximized when instruction is designed to focus on big, interrelated ideas accompanied by essential questions (Bellanca & Brandt, 2010). The iPad  and other tablets have many possibilities for use in the classroom when applied to real-world circumstances that engage students in analyzing situations and applying critical and creative thinking to find reasonable solutions.

For English learners, this means having intentional opportunities to also engage in outcome-oriented discussions with justification. By allowing students to negotiate using such technologies as the iPad as a tool for learning, they can broaden their social and academic language skills and demonstrate their understanding of the content through expressive means (writing or speaking).

For example, in a middle school life science class, students are learning about food webs and the interactions between biotic and abiotic factors in the environment. It isn’t enough to just understand what food webs are and learn the terms biotic and abiotic. Rather, it is critical that students are able to apply that knowledge to real-world situations. So instead of simply practicing how to identify the energy transfer among organisms in a food web, students may be challenged to research a particular environment (i.e., rainforest in Peru –, identify unique flora and fauna to that region, and pinpoint threats that could upset the balance of that food web. Additionally, students can use social networking sites, such as Facebook (if over the age of 13), to investigate organizations with environmental concerns and compare their own ideas with those of practicing organizations (i.e., Rainforest Alliance).

Instructional rigor is achieved by extending the activity and engaging students in finding potential solutions that would prevent an environmental upset. These types of highly cognitive learning opportunities immediately increase rigor and require students to apply and negotiate their academic knowledge in a solutions-driven environment.

The tablet becomes a learner tool as students research the web and collect data that would contribute to the solution-driven activity. In completing the activity, the learner must have or acquire sufficient knowledge of: (1) what food webs are; (2) in what ways food webs are significant to an environment; (3) what abiotic and biotic factors are; (4) which biotic factors contribute to a food web; and (5) how abiotic factors contribute to or affect the success of a food web. Engaging in solution-driven activities with the iPad,  etc., goes beyond superficial and lower-level tasks by requiring students to expand their knowledge in context and through active engagement with others.

Products that can be used to demonstrate learning and critical thinking include creating a public service announcement with an iPad or tablet and allowing students to edit and create a final video with iMovie, for example. English learners benefit greatly from this type of expressive task because they must negotiate their understanding of the topic with others in their group and engage in a cooperative team environment that requires extensive interaction with their peers to come to a common understanding of the issue at hand.

Additionally, students may be asked to use the iPad or other tablets to present their contrived solution in the form of a concept map and may include a visual representation that would demonstrate the catastrophic impact of how identified threats to the region could negatively impact the food web within the environment.

There are multitudes of learning apps and opportunities that can be used with tablets. This above scenario is just one of limitless ways in which the iPad and other tablets can effectively be used as a student-driven tool for learning. It is especially useful for English learners because it offers a medium for communication practices on both a social and academic level. Subsequent articles in the IDRA Newsletter series will focus on how tablets can be used as a teaching tool and as a leadership platform for catapulting teacher efficacy and student success.


Bellanca, J., & R. Brandt. (eds). 21st Century Skills: Rethink How Students Learn (Bloomington, Ind.: Solutions Tree Press, 2010).

Roth, W.M., & M.K. McGinn. “Graphing: Cognitive Ability or Practice?” Science Education (1997) 81(1), 91-106.

Sarason, S.B. And What Do You Mean by Learning? (Portsmouth, N.H.: Heineman, 2004).

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 education associate in IDRA Field Services. Paula Johnson, M.A., is an education associate in IDRA Field Services. Comments and questions may be directed to them via e-mail at

[©2012, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the September 2012 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Every effort has been made to maintain the content in its original form. However, accompanying charts and graphs may not be provided here. To receive a copy of the original article by mail or fax, please fill out our information request and feedback form. 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.]