As STEM/STEAM education becomes increasingly important in today’s job market, many teachers and educators are faced with the challenge of accommodating students who do not speak English proficiently.
Currently, there are about 5.1 million ELL students in the public school system. This poses a challenge for STEAM teachers that assume English proficiency is a requirement for success in these subjects.
English proficiency should not be a requirement for STEM Education
A report published by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine finds that the lack of interest or ability are not hindering students from pursuing STEAM education or careers. Rather, it’s a lack of specific levels of English proficiency.
“While there is no language without content, there is some content that is less dependent on language,” the report says. “STEM subjects include alternative routes to acquiring knowledge—experimentation, demonstration of phenomena, and demonstration of practices—through which students can gain a sense of STEM content without resorting mainly to language to access meaning.”
Challenges Faced by ELL Students in STEM
One of the most common misconceptions about language learners is the idea that if a student is fluent in English, then they have a complete understanding of the language. In reality, however, successful students must acquire two different types of English — social language and academic language.
Many English-only students whose spoken language is perfect when talking to other students in the hall (social language) do not have the academic vocabulary necessary to understand complex STEM concepts (academic language).
ELL students also face similar challenges when it comes to science and math, which often require the use of specific and complex vocabulary words. For example, words such as “element” or “coefficient” can be difficult for ELL students to understand, which can hinder their ability to learn and succeed in STEM/STEAM subjects.
In addition, ELL students often come from different cultural backgrounds and may have different learning styles.
Teachers and educators must consider these differences when teaching science to English language learners. Then, they should take steps to ensure that they are providing an inclusive and culturally responsive learning environment.
4 Ways to Support ELL Students in STEM
So, how can teachers and educators support English language learners in the classroom? Here are some tips:
1. Provide Models for Using STEM Language
When teaching English language learners in STEAM, it’s important to focus on discrete language skills and how to apply and use those skills to learn content.
While it’s essential for all students to learn new vocabulary, it’s even more important for ELL students who may need to catch up with their grade-level peers.
But simply memorizing definitions is not enough. Students must also learn how to use those words to explain their learning.
To effectively learn a language, students must become proficient at multiple levels of language usage, including vocabulary, grammar, and organization and cohesion of ideas. For instance, an ELL student who has learned many STEM-related words may struggle to express a complex scientific idea using those words.
Similarly, even native English-speaking students may struggle to comprehend or construct complex sentences in academic English or understand dense technical texts.
Therefore, it’s crucial to model how STEM vocabulary should be used in context to help all students — not just ELL students — succeed in STEAM/STEM classes and programs.
2. Encourage Students to Think and Act Like Scientists and Engineers
Make science and engineering accessible for ELLs by giving them opportunities to do the same things scientists and engineers do. This includes asking questions, making models, investigating, analyzing data, using math, explaining ideas, making arguments, and sharing information.
Encouraging active participation in these practices helps students learn through social interaction and the use of scientific language and tools. These practices are inclusive and can benefit students from different backgrounds and language abilities.
3. Provide Peer Support and Encourage Group Learning
To help ELL students in STEAM activities, teachers should encourage them to work in groups and interact meaningfully with peers and teachers. Science and language go hand in hand, so engaging in science practices helps students learn new ways of expressing themselves.
By working in small groups, students who speak English as a second language get more chances to talk, use STEAM vocabulary, and take more responsibility for their own learning. Teachers should plan lessons that give students opportunities to engage in productive scientific discourse and communicate effectively with others. Using turn and talk strategies and explaining their thinking using vocabulary could easily be included in each lesson.
4. Provide Additional Support
ELL students may require additional support in order to succeed in STEM subjects.
Teachers and educators can provide extra one-on-one support, assign additional reading and homework, or offer tutoring programs. STEAM summer camps and after-school robotics or coding programs are also a great way to give ELLs more STEM exposure in a less-stressful, non-graded environment.
Embrace ELL Students in STEM
In conclusion, it is important to remember that English proficiency should not be a requirement for success in STEM education. By using hands-on activities, simplifying language, incorporating culture, providing peer support, and offering additional support, teachers and educators can help ELL students succeed in STEM and prepare for future STEM careers.
By providing an inclusive and supportive learning environment, teachers can help ELL students develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills, and foster a love for STEM that will last a lifetime.
Learn more about how SAM Labs supports all learners, including ELL students.
Shaunda Douglas is a former educator with over 15 years of experience in all levels of education. In her free time, she reads, plays with her dogs, watches baseball, and loves a good nap.