by Frank Gonzales, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • February 1995

A major goal of mathematics and science instruction is to develop students’ ability to interpret and apply what they have learned. Traditional teaching methods have focused on providing students with discrete facts. However, real learning requires the ability to understand, not just repeat or regurgitate course material. Thus, instructional techniques must stress the development of thinking skills as well as the acquisition of information in math and science.

The traditional way of teaching science and mathematics has been the lecture and discussion method, where teachers “tell” students what they are to learn and “ask” students questions over what they have been told. This approach limits the learning experience for all students, limited-English-proficient (LEP) as well as those who are proficient in English, for it gives them very little opportunity to discuss the content or topic, to solve problems, to ask their own questions or to develop thinking skills related to the subject matter on which they are required to take standardized tests in order to graduate. The traditional method is even less effective with LEP students since it is dependent upon students’ understanding the lecture in English. LEP students are often required to understand oral word problems or scientific explanations without concrete referents, to understand demonstrations and to follow directions in English through the lecture method.

Mathematics and science content taught to LEP students should be the same as content taught to other students. Science comprises the descriptions developed over time to explain how and why the environment operates as it does. Mathematics comprises the use of numbers and their operations. These understandings are universal, not more or less appropriate for members of certain cultures or races. In addition, universal access to advanced science and mathematics is necessary to ensure equitable access to professional career opportunities.

Mathematics and science instruction is most effective when the content is organized around common themes (Stutman and Guzmán, 1993). The themes can be broad science concepts such as the nature of matter or magnetic energy, or they can be societal issues such as the pollution and purification of water or the impact of drugs on the physiology and behavior of living organisms. Mathematics themes can be as simple as determining the area within a classroom or determining the inter-relationship of distance between the planets. Using themes puts knowledge in a comprehensible context with relevance to students’ lives, which increases the probability that students will continue to want to learn about mathematics and science on their own.

Research and experience have demonstrated that the classroom organization strategy most effective for teaching content to LEP students is cooperative learning because it fosters language development through inter-student communication (Kagan, 1990). In a cooperative task, LEP students can develop listening, speaking, reading and writing skills as they learn the information of the tasks.

Effective teaching research tells us that students learn better when they do something. Active learning provides higher student achievement than does passive learning. In a discovery environment, students have the opportunity to find the answers to the questions they themselves pose about a topic. They develop their English language skills as they articulate the problems they have devised, and they learn to learn on their own. Students should also be given ample opportunities to test their own ideas. Ideally, teachers should provide a variety of resources to support students’ discovery activities: materials for science laboratory investigations; reference books, newspapers and magazines; access to libraries for additional materials; classroom visits from specialists in the community; field trips; films; and computer programs.

The inquiry and discovery method of content teaching is like the “whole or natural language” approach to teaching a new language. Whole language instruction de-emphasizes pure memorization of language and stresses, instead, language skill development and comprehension through use of the language in a real world setting.

Classroom teachers can help language minority students comprehend content subject matter as they acquire English language skills by practicing the following suggestions compiled based on existing research and IDRA’s experience with schools.

  1. Increase your own knowledge. Learn as much as you can about the language and culture of your students. Go to movies and read books. Keep the similarities and differences in mind and then check your knowledge by asking your students whether or not they agree with your impressions. Learn as much of the student’s language as you can; even a few words help. Widen your own world view; think of alternative ways to reach the goals you have for your class.
  2. Simplify your language not the content or questions. Speak directly to the student, emphasizing important nouns and verbs. Use as few extra words as possible. Repetition and speaking louder does not help; rephrasing, accompanied by body language, does. Avoid slang and idiomatic expressions.
  3. Announce the lesson’s objectives and activities. Write the objectives on the board and review them orally before class begins. It is also helpful to place the lesson in the context of its broader theme and preview upcoming lessons.
  4. Write legibly. This is good for everyone. Remember that some students have low levels of literacy or are unaccustomed to the Roman alphabet. Use the chalkboard or overhead projector to write important words.
  5. Demonstrate; use manipulatives. Whenever possible, accompany your message with gestures, pictures and objects that help get the meaning across. Use a variety of different pictures or objects for the same idea. Give an immediate context for new words.
  6. Make use of all senses. Give students a chance to touch things, to listen to sounds, even to smell and taste when possible. Talk about the words that describe these senses as the students physically experience something. Write new words as well as say them.
  7. Use filmstrips, films, videotapes and audio cassettes with books. Obtain audio-visual materials from the school or district media center to improve a content lesson. It is helpful to preview the audio-visual materials before showing them to the class, both for possible language difficulties and misleading cultural information.
  8. Bring realia into the lessons. Use visual displays (graphs, charts, photographs), objects and authentic materials, like newspaper and magazine clippings, in the lessons and assignments. These help provide non-verbal information and also help match various learning styles.
  9. Adapt the materials. Don’t “water down” the content. Rather, make the concepts more accessible and comprehensible by adding pictures, charts, maps, time-lines and diagrams in addition to simplifying the language.
  10. Pair or group language minority students with native speakers. Much of a student’s language learning comes from interacting with his or her peers. Give your students tasks to complete that require interaction of each member of the group. Utilize cooperative learning techniques in a student-centered classroom.
  11. Develop a student-centered approach to teaching and learning. Teachers need to become facilitators and let students assume more responsibility for their learning. When activities are planned that actively involve students, the students can better process the material presented and acquire the language as well.
  12. Have the students do hands-on activities. Plan for students to manipulate new materials through hands-on activities, such as role play and simulations. This includes TPR (total physical response), laboratory experiments, drawing pictures and story sequences, and writing their own math word problems.
  13. List and review instructions step-by-step. Before students begin an activity, teachers should familiarize them with the entire list of instructions. Then, teachers should have students work on each step individually before moving on to the next step. This procedure is ideal for teaching students to solve math and science word problems.
  14. Ask inferential and higher order thinking questions. Encourage students’ reasoning abilities, such as hypothesizing, inferring, analyzing, justifying, predicting. Language minority students possess higher order thinking skills.
  15. Build on the student’s prior knowledge. Find out as much as you can about how and what a student learned in his or her own country or cultural context. Then make a connection between the ideas and concepts you are teaching and the student’s previous knowledge or previous way of being taught. Encourage the students to point out differences and connect similarities.
  16. Recognize that students will make language mistakes. During the second language acquisition process, students make mistakes; this is natural in the process of learning a language. Make sure that the students have understood the information but do not emphasize the grammatical aspect of their responses. When possible, model the correct grammatical form.
  17. Increase wait time. Give students time to think and process the information before you rush in with answers. A student may know the answer, but may need a little more processing time in order to say it in English.
  18. Do not force reticent students to speak. Give the students an opportunity to demonstrate their comprehension and knowledge through body actions, drawing pictures, manipulating objects or pointing.
  19. Respond to the message. If a student has the correct answer and you can understand it, do not correct his or her grammar. The exact word and correct grammatical response will develop with time, especially with young children. Instead, repeat his or her answer, putting it into standard English, and let the student know that you are pleased with his or her response.
  20. Support the student’s home language and culture; bring it into the classroom. Students can keep their home languages and learn English. Many children in this world grow up speaking more than one language; it is an advantage. Let students help bring about a multicultural perspective to the subjects you are teaching. Students can bring in pictures, poems, dances, proverbs or games. They can demonstrate a new way to do a math problems. Encourage students to this as a part of the subject you are teaching, not just as a separate activity. Do whatever you can to help your fluent English-speaking students see the language-minority student as a knowledgeable person from a respected culture.

LEP students can learn science, mathematics or any other content area subject as they develop their English proficiency. They can analyze, synthesize and make judgements about any topic they are taught when comprehensible instruction is provided. Classroom teachers who make their lessons comprehensible will become aware that all students can and do learn.

What is your immediate response to the following statements?

  1. Limited-English-proficient (LEP) students should not begin to study the more language intensive content areas such as science and mathematics until they have developed basic English proficiency. True or False
  2. The classroom teacher should avoid asking LEP students questions that require higher order thinking skills until they reach a proficiency level close to or equal to that of their English-speaking classmates. True or False
  3. LEP students who enter schools in the United States should be able to participate successfully in mainstream content classes within three years. True or False
  4. Schools should discourage LEP students from using their home language in the content area classes because this will delay their progress in developing English skills. True or False

These are issues that educators have been facing for years. Check your responses with what research verifies.

  1. False. Language learning should not be separated from content area learning. Studies show that language minority students can develop language skills while acquiring the concepts and academic skills needed for success in content area subjects (Lambert and Tucker, 1972). Postponing content instruction results in underachievement and dropping out (Short, 1991).
  2. False. Emphasis should be placed on developing higher order thinking skills throughout the instructional program for language-minority students (Chamot and O’Malley, 1994).
  3. False. Research shows that it generally takes language-minority students five to seven years to develop the academic language needed for academic success in an all-English classroom (Cummins, 1981; Collier, 1989).
  4. False. Students should be encouraged to use their home language to help them understand the subject matter whenever possible. Not allowing students to use their first language inhibits them and may cause negative feelings about themselves and their culture (Lee, 1993).


American Association for the Advancement of Science. Stepping into the Future: Hispanics in Science and Engineering (Washington, D.C.: AAAS, 1992).

Chamot, A.U. and J.M. O’Malley. The CALLA Handbook: Implementing the Cognitive Academic Language Learning Approach (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., 1994).

Collier, V. “How Long? A Synthesis of Research on Academic Achievement in a Second Language,” TESOL Quarterly (1989), 23(3), pp. 509-530.

Cummins, J. Schooling and Language Minority Students: A Theoretical Framework (Los Angles, Calif.: California State University; Evaluation, Dissemination and Assessment Center, 1981).

Gonzales, Frank and E. Buckley. Teaching Content: ESL Strategies for Classroom Teachers (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association – Desegregation Assistance Center-South Central Collaborative, 1994).

Kagan, S. Cooperative Learning: Resources for Teachers (San Juan Capistrano, Calif.: Resources for Teachers, Inc., 1990).

Lambert, W. and G.R. Tucker. Bilingual Education of Children (Rowley, Mass.: Newbury House, 1972).

Lee, V.W. “Low-Literacy Immigrant Students Pose New Challenges,” New Voices: A Newsletter from the National Center for Immigrant Students (Boston, Mass.: National Coalition of Advocates for Students, 1993).

Swartz, Wendy. “Teaching Limited-English-Proficient Students to Understand and Use Mathematics,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, June 1992) pp. 12-14.

Swartz, Wendy. “The Trials and Tribulations of Learning Science & Mathematics by At-Risk Students,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, April 1988) pp. 10-12.

Short, D.J. Intergrating Language and Content Instruction: Strategies and Techniques (Washington, D.C.: National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education, 1991).

Stutman, F.X. and A.C. Guzmán. “Teaching Science Effectively to Limited English Proficient Students,” Eric Clearinghouse on Urban Education Digest (New York, N.Y.: Teachers College Columbia University, March 1993), 87.

Dr. Frank Gonzales is a senior education associate in the IDRA Division of Professional Development. Comments and questions may be directed to him via e-mail at

[©1995, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the February 1995 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.]