Vocabulary Instruction For Ell Latino Students In Science Classroom

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Kimberly Gomez and Christina Madda introduces their article entitled “Vocabulary Instruction for ELL Latino Studentsin the Middle School Science Classroom” Voices From the Middle: Vol. 13, No. 1,September 2005. Pages 42-47, with a very powerful anecdote, and goes on to analyse the strategies used by one reflective science teacher of ELLs, Darlene Wakefield, to examine how purposeful design of lessons to support ELLs impacts their learning in science. Darlene Wakefield’s second-period science students have gathered around strands of hair. The eighth graders, mostly English Language Learners (ELLs), are trying to classify the hair into curly, wavy, straight, thick or thin, brown or black. As Darlene walks around the classroom visiting each group and listening to their questions and comments, one group calls Darlene over to their table and asks: “Why does it say shaft, Ms. Wakefield? When you shaft someone it means to cheat them out of something. How are we supposed to show a shaft for hair?” Very soon other students call for Darlene’s assistance. This classification activity, that was planned for 20 will have to be carried over to the next day’s lesson. Darlene feels overwhelmed by the ELL students’ science vocabulary needs as does many other teachers in USA who often find themselves unprepared or under-prepared to simultaneously provide content area instruction and meet the academic literacy needs of these students.

Current educational policy embodied by the No Child Left Behind Act requires that all students, including English language learners, meet high standards in science, reading, and math. While expectations for content area achievement are high, findings from the National Center for Education Statistics (n.d.) indicate that scores at all grade levels are considerably lower for English language learners than for their English-proficient peers.

Data for this analysis was obtained from the Main NAEP Data Explorer tool, which allows users to select data based on subject, grade level, year, jurisdiction, and variable (Department of Education, 2018). Composite mathematics scores for 4th, 8th, and 12th grade students were included for years 2005, 2009, 2013, and 2015. ELLs achieve significantly lower scores on NAEP mathematics assessments than non-ELLs or former ELLs. On average for the years shown, ELLs’ 4th grade math scores are around 90% of those of both non-ELLs and former ELLs. For 8th grade, Ohio Journal of School Mathematics 82 Page 31 ELLs’ scores are 86% of those of non-ELLs and 89% of those of former ELLs. For 12th grade, ELLs’ average scores are even lower at 75% of those of non-ELLs and 81% of those of former ELLs. Clearly, there appears to be a significant achievement gap in the mathematics content area for English language learners.

This lit review looks at: English hegemony, Science learning and vocabulary, Projects undertaken, Strategies identified. Despite the fact that the United States does not have an official language policy, English is its official language and, with or without official status, it enjoys hegemony vis-& vis other languages. The hegemony of English has the potential power not only to diminish the use and value of minority languages, but also to replace them entirely. To develop a framework for understanding the hegemony of English in the United States, I drew from Gramsci’s (197I) view of hegemony and how it factors in the leadership and direction of society, Eriksen’s (1992) work on linguistic hegemony in situations involving struggles between minority and dominant languages throughout the world, and Phillipson’s (1992) analysis of English-language teaching (ELT) in the world as linguistic imperialism. Hegemony can be defined as: Wherever more than one language or language variety exists together, their status in relation to one another is often asymmetric. In those cases. one will be perceived as superior. desirable, and necessary, whereas the other will be seen as inferior. undesirable. and extraneous.

In the United States today, English is the majority, superior, and dominant language and all other languages are subordinate, languages. More than 30 million residents of the United States are minority-language speakers and their numbers are on the increase, primarily due to immigration (Trueba, 1989).In the case of the United States, Eriksen (1992) pointed out that language diversity has always been viewed with suspicion in the United States and that it is perceived “as something which should be tracked down, cornered, and exterminated” (p. 324). Speaking English is seen as the key to success. (MacKaye, 1987). Emergent bilinguals learning science in English are facing a two-prolonged challenge, that of learning the language in which science is taught and, simultaneously, that of learning science related content. While their teachers are face the task of Integrating science instruction with language instruction Lemke (1990) see science as a language. He suggests that “learning science means learning to talk science” (p. 1). “Talking science means observing, describing, comparing, classifying, analyzing, discussing, hypothesizing, theorizing, questioning, challenging, arguing, designing experiments, following procedures, judging, evaluating, deciding, concluding, generalizing, reporting ... in and through the language of science” To perform these processes, it is imperative for the students to understand the scientific concepts involved, know the target vocabulary as well as use the required language structures which necessitates an appropriate level of proficiency with academic language or what Cummins calls a “cognitive-academic language proficiency” (Cummins & Swain, 1986, p. 15).This is only possible through specific language related instruction and integrating language and science instruction when working with second language learners (Spanos, 1989).

Current educational policies and practices do not generally support desired science outcomes with ELLs. Resources are scarcer and teacher attrition is higher in inner-city schools with high populations of ELLs and other nonmainstream students. Assessment accommodations for ELLs in large-scale science assessments are either not considered or not consistently implemented, resulting in inaccurate knowledge about the strengths, needs, and academic progress of these students (Abedi, 2004; Abedi, Hofstetter, & Lord, 2004).

Much of “best practice” literature points to the importance of vocabulary development among ELL students. Gersten and Baker (2000) suggest that teachers should present lists of seven or fewer words that students can work on over relatively long periods of time. Teachers should also provide specific examples of key words and technical vocabulary using pictures, gestures, props, graphic organizers, word banks, videos, or role playing (Gonzalez et al., 1998). In other words, using a variety of methods to teach vocabulary helps students acquire a deeper comprehension of word meanings. Teachers should give students ample practice with reading, writing, and speaking language, and should also pay close attention to students’ use of vocabulary in natural as well as in classroom settings. They must recognize that students who are orally functional in English may continue to need vocabulary scaffolding in reading and writing in content-area study. Teachers must also have pedagogical knowledge about how to modify instruction to support ELL students’ literacy needs.

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Linguistic Influences on Science Learning

A number of studies focus on linguistic influences on the science learning of ELLs in either bilingual or mainstreamed classrooms. In science education, research on curricular and professional development interventions to promote science and English proficiency of ELLs is limited, but has begun to emerge in recent years (Jansen, 2008; Lee, 2005). Based on this emerging research literature, Okhee Lee offers specific strategies in five domains: (a) literacy strategies with all students, (b) language support strategies with ELLs, (c) discourse strategies with ELLs, (d) home language support, and (e) home culture connections.

In another study conducted within the United States, Torres and Zeidler (2002) used a three-way factorial design to examine the effects of three independent variables (i.e., English language proficiency, scientific reasoning skills, and students' classification as 'language learners') on the dependent variable (scientific content knowledge). The results indicated that the 'language learner' variable (i.e., Hispanic ELLs or native English speakers) did not have any statistically significant effect, whereas students' level of English language proficiency and their scientific reason- ing skills had significant effects, independently and in interaction with each other. The results suggested that combined high levels of English language proficiency and reasoning skills enhanced students' ability to learn scientific content knowledge in English.

Tobin and McRobbie (1996) conducted qualitative research on how ELL Chinese high school students in Australia endeavored to make sense of what happened in a chemistry class conducted in English. The students employed Cantonese in their oral and written discourse and exhibited high levels of effort. Despite the students' efforts to learn chemistry with understanding, they were limited by their difficulties in English. The results suggested that a linguistic hegemony based on the use of English to teach chemistry and assess performance placed these ELLs in a position of potential academic failure. The researchers argue that learning chemistry can be facilitated when ELLs are provided with opportunities to fully employ their native language tools and when science instruction uses the cultural capital of the students.

Literacy Strategies With All Students

Literacy development involves a range of abilities that extend beyond being able to speak, listen, read, and write like power of thinking and reasoning, learning to view and visually represent pictorial and graphic as well as textual communication of ideas and information. In science classrooms, effective teachers incorporate reading and writing strategies in their instruction to promote both science learning and literacy development for all students.They activate prior knowledge related to a science topic, use expository texts related to everyday experiences, use well-planned comprehension questions about science inquiry activities, and incorporate literature with scientific themes into instruction. The use of a variety of academic language functions should be modelled as students are encouraged to generate questions, formulate hypotheses, design investigations, collect and interpret data and draw conclusions, Effective teachers use various graphic organizers (e.g., concept maps, word walls, Venn diagrams) to reinforce science concepts and literacy skills in a reciprocal process.

Language Support Strategies With ELLs

Emphasis on hands-on, inquiry-based activities. provides opportunities for all students to develop scientific understanding and to engage in inquiry practices, it is especially effective for ELLs for several reasons (Lee & Fradd, 1998; Rosebery et al., 1992).

  • First, hands-on activities are less dependent on formal mastery of the language of instruction and, thus, reduce the linguistic burden on ELLs.
  • Second, hands-on activities foster language acquisition by establishing authentic communication about science knowledge and practice.
  • Third, inquiry-based science facilitates ELLs' expression of their understanding in a variety of formats, including gestural, oral, pictorial, graphic, and textual. Effective teachers of science foster communication of ideas using multiple modes of representation (e.g., gestural, oral, pictorial, graphic, and textual).

Discourse Strategies With ELLs

Effective teachers of science recognize ELLs' varying levels of language proficiency and adjust their interactions with students accordingly, They also provide students with multiple explanations of the same concepts by using synonyms, paraphrasing key concepts, repeating and rephrasing main ideas, or recasting and elaborating on students' responses (Gibbons, 2006). Teachers can promote precision in observing and describing objects and events through attention to positional words (e.g., in/on, above/below, inside/outside), comparative terms (e.g., hot, hotter, hottest, or cold, colder, coldest), and affixes (e.g., /in-/ in increase or inflate as opposed to /de-/ in decrease or deflate.

Home Language Support

In the science classroom, teachers need to understand how to build upon and make use of students' home language to support science learning in English. If teachers share the same home language with their students, they use the home language to communicate and reinforce key science vocabulary and concepts. Teachers should encourage bilingual students to assist less English proficient students in their home language as well as in English, and allow ELLs to write about science ideas or experiments in their home language.

Home Culture Connections

Although making connections to ELLs' home language is quite concrete, making connections to the students' cultural experiences in relation to academic content can be more abstract and subtle.

In science classrooms, teachers need to know how different students might be more or less familiar with the participation norms that are expected in science classrooms, what patterns of interaction are common among different groups of students, how these patterns might foster or limit students' participation in science classrooms, and how they can balance a consideration of culturally-based communication and interaction patterns with the dangers of stereotypes or overgeneralization based on students' cultural backgrounds. For example, cross-talk (talking simultaneously with other speakers to add to their points) is completely acceptable in some cultures, but it is considered rude and disruptive in other cultures.


Effective instruction involves more than just the work of individual teachers. It also requires concerted and systemic efforts, such as administrative support for classroom practices and legislative support for educational policies.

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