Teaching Science to English Language Learners: Instructional Approaches of High School Teachers
Students who are English Language Learners (ELLs) form the fastest growing segment of the American school population. Prompted by the call for scientific literacy for all citizens, science educators too have investigated the intersection of language and science instruction of ELLs. However these studies have typically been conducted with elementary students. Few studies have explored how high school science teachers, particularly those who have not received any special training, approach science instruction of ELLs and what supports them in this endeavor.
This was a qualitative case study conducted with five science teachers in one small urban high school that predominantly served ELLs. The purpose of this study was to examine instructional approaches used by teachers to make science accessible to ELLs and the factors that supported or inhibited them in developing their instructional approaches. This goal encompassed the following questions: (a) how teachers viewed science instruction of ELLs, (b) how teachers designed a responsive program to teach science to ELLs, (c) what approaches teachers used for curriculum development and instruction, (d) how teachers developed classroom learning communities to meet the needs of ELLs.
Seven instructional strategies and five perceived sources of support emerged as findings of this research. In summary, teachers believed that they needed to make science more accessible for their ELL students while promoting their literacy skills. Teachers provided individualized attention to students to provide relevant support. Teachers engaged their students in various types of active learning lessons in social contexts, where students worked on both hands-on and meaning-making activities and interacted with their peers and teachers. Teachers also created classroom communities and learning spaces where students felt comfortable to seek and give help. Finally, teachers identified several sources of support that influenced their instructional approaches including, the structure of the school, working on instructional teams, collaborating and working with other teachers especially English teachers and including science teachers, and participating in various professional development activities.
The findings indicated that the instructional approaches used by teachers were largely supported by literacy education and science education done at elementary level. Findings also revealed that teachers in this study encouraged their ELLs to participate in classroom conversations and involved them in answering open-ended questions. However, not all teachers in this study had the same repertoire of instructional strategies for their ELL students and some teachers demonstrated a better understanding of these approaches than others. All teachers perceived that the structure of the school as well as collaborating and working with other teachers, especially English teachers, as their main source of support in designing instructional approaches. This study suggests that teacher educators and professional development providers need to develop courses and programs to help high school teachers learn about how to design instructional activities that simultaneously promote both academic science and English literacy. Also, administrators need to create conditions at their schools that would allow teachers to interact, collaborate, and learn from each other.