• by Kristin Grayson, M.Ed. • IDRA Newsletter • April 2012 •Kristin Grayson, M.Ed.

Over the past several years, IDRA has teamed with San Marcos CISD and Texas State University through a grant from the Texas Education Agency to improve science achievement for students in K-8 in that district. Through this action research approach, seven umbrella research-supported strategies have been identified to help English learners (ELs) achieve in the science classroom. This article describes one strategy: Building on EL proficiency for effective science instruction. It also describes its research foundation and the techniques that teachers can use to implement this strategy in their classrooms.

It is essential for teachers to design and plan science instruction that is understandable for ELs, is connected to experiential knowledge, and will build their scientific knowledge and cognitive skills. In order to effectively teach ELs, teachers must know which students come from a language background other than English. And they must also know their levels of proficiency in the four language domains of English (listening, speaking, reading, writing).

Research shows that teachers must know and understand theories about bilingualism and second language development as well as goals for instructional processes in order to successfully help their students (Genesee, et al., 2005). According to Stephen Krashen (1985), students can be moved to the next level of proficiency (i+1) when given comprehensible input. This theory of comprehensible input implies that experience in learning the first language can be of extreme benefit in learning a second language and that providing multiple sensory experiences greatly enhances the acquisition of the second language.

Having access to student language proficiency data can help teachers decide which instructional strategies are appropriate as they differentiate instruction for the students in their classroom, such as initial use of students’ first language, increased use of visuals, more detailed explanations enhanced by visuals, phasing in the various levels of student engagement, and mediated scaffolding and modifications of instruction to ensure student comprehension. This type of strategic support, enriched through scaffolding (Vygotsky, 1986), improves the quality and efficiency of the second language acquisition process.

Many times, student language proficiency data are not factored into instructional planning, creating a disconnect between instruction and students’ assets and needs. Because instruction requires interaction with students, teachers’ knowledge of the students’ proficiency in the language of instruction is critical to designing comprehensible learning opportunities. A key professional development area that needs additional focus and attention is precisely in the use of student data for instructional decision making. Often, teachers need training on the implications of what the assessment data reveal. Assessment data can help a teacher understand what the student is capable of in English and what the next level of proficiency is. The teacher’s challenge is to move the student to that next level of English while at the same time teaching the content of science appropriate for the student’s age and grade level.

Once the teacher knows the formal assessment scores of language proficiency and has observed and informally assessed students during class, there are a number of techniques that teachers can use to build upon students’ level of English. Five of these techniques are briefly summarized below.

Technique #1

Teachers should post, state and use key scientific academic vocabulary throughout each lesson. This vocabulary should be used in numerous authentic contexts during a variety of multi-sensory experiences. Teachers and students use the vocabulary during paired and small group interactions. Providing sentence stems, such as “plants and animals are different…” model different English grammatical structures for students to use.

Technique #2

Teachers can use visuals, gestures and real objects for meaningful learning and instruction. This might include drawings, drama, sequencing of events and processes using an interactive whiteboard, sentence strips, charts, graphs, generating of questions, poems, songs, rap, and even the creation of a help wanted ad or other types of written text. All of these types of activities can promote higher order thinking skills for ELs as they allow for the natural acquisition of scientific academic language. Teachers can assess the use of this technique by observing ELs engaged with other students in creative production and observing a high level of academic interaction between students.

Technique #3

Teachers can chunk instruction into dynamic and cognitively engaging activities. These activities might only last 20 to 30 minutes depending on the grade level of the students. The activities become particularly meaningful because brain research, as cited by Jensen (2003), tells us that primacy and recency, or first and last experiences, are most easily remembered. By having short instructional segments, teachers maximize learning through this chunking of activities. Chunking of language is also an important concept. We learn and recognize vocabulary in the context of meaning phrases, and therefore vocabulary should not be used as single words in isolation but as chunks or phrases.

Technique #4

Teachers can use knowledge organizers, such as foldable, advance and graphic organizers, to scaffold learning and promote metacognition. By using organizers that connect phrases of scientific language in meaningful ways, students are able to comprehend relationships, similarities and differences of concepts. When students generate their own organizers, especially those that are hands-on (such as through an interactive word wall) or technology based, it is especially meaningful because students interact with each other to generate the categories and relationships themselves, thus they interact with the academic content in a more complex fashion. This also gives students the ability to reflect on their own thinking (metacognition) when they interact with others and explain how they have generated the relationships between concepts. Organizers provide for visualization of complex thought and promote comprehension and memory.

Technique #5

When using academic language, teachers can help promote language development through a focus on the language form, meaning and structures (Cummins, 1984). For example, form might include looking at words in a textbook and seeing the similarities between root words when they are used as verbs vs. nouns or adjectives. A focus on meaning in science might include the comparing of identical words used in different subject areas. One example might be comparing the use of a “chart” in science and math vs. “charting a path” as used in a social studies textbook. A focus on structure is an explicit look at how language phrases are organized grammatically. Narrative text, as in literature, is quite different than the complex sentence structures with prepositional phrases and passive voice used in many science textbooks. All of this intentional focus on language (form, meaning, structure) improves the students’ acquisition of academic English in science thus also improving their comprehension and science achievement.

In conclusion, teachers need to purposefully review student data, including their English language proficiency scores, and find the points of intersection with language and science content to systematically and purposefully develop students’ science and English achievement. Teachers do this when they adapt their instruction planning for increasing student achievement through the integration of their language and science goals. IDRA has produced a publication titled, Science Instructional Strategies for English Learners – A Guide for Elementary and Secondary Grades, that is available for schools preparing their teachers to provide successful science instruction to ELs and other learners whose language proficiency is not at the expected level.


Cummins, J. Bilingualism and Special Education: Issues in Assessment and Pedagogy (San Diego, Calf.: College Hill Press, 1984).

Genesee, F., & K. Lindholm-Leary, W. Saunders, D. Christia. “English Language Learners in U.S. Schools: An Overview of Research Findings,” Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk (2005) 10(4), 363-385.

­Jensen, E. Tools for Engagement: Managing Emotional States for Learner Success (San Diego Calf.: The Brain Store, Inc., 2003). Krashen S.D. The Input Hypothesis: Issues and Implications (London & New York: Longman, 1985).

Villarreal, A., & V. Betancourt, K. Grayson. Science Instructional Strategies for English Learners: A Guide for Elementary and Secondary Grades (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, 2011).

Vygotsky, I. Thought and Language (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1986).

Kristin Grayson, M.Ed., is an education associate in IDRA Field Services. Comments and questions may be directed to her via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©2012, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the April 2012 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.]