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Language IS essential for Science: The need to improve science materials for Multilingual Learners

May 25, 2022
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Like math teachers, many science teachers have not traditionally viewed themselves as language teachers.

Language instruction was often seen as a separate entity– and many believed that Science did not possess the same opportunities and demands of language and communication as subjects like English-Language Arts (ELA) and History. If there was any language instruction, it focused primarily on the pre-teaching of technical vocabulary. 

In reality, students utilize a large repertoire of language as they engage in science sense-making. They bring their own linguistic resources in the form of their everyday and home language to understand, illustrate, and communicate about scientific ideas in meaningful ways; other times, they might utilize specialized language, like passive voice, nominalization, or multimodal representations, to communicate a specific concept. To provide students with language-rich science learning environments, and ensure true comprehension and learning, teachers must see and leverage all the ways language is used for doing science.  

Fortunately, when The Framework for K-12 Science Education was released in 2012, this perception began to shift. The framework outlines a vision of science learning that integrates language-intensive practices and concepts, like constructing explanations and developing models. This framework offers rich opportunities for language use and learning.

In the last decade, most states across the country have adopted some version of this framework into their own official standards, representing an awareness of the importance of language and communication skills for science learning. Concurrently, there has been an increasing commitment to foregrounding equity and science literacy for all. 

However, teachers across the country are spending hours researching and sourcing their own materials. To support both teachers and the multilingual learners they serve, it is clear that content developers need specific guidance on how to bring language to the forefront of their materials in a way that will help multilingual learners thrive academically. 

In 2018, ELSF began with the development of clear and consistent research-based guidelines for instructional materials in two core content areas– ELA and Math.

During this development process, two realizations came into sharp focus: 1) Gaps in the quality of instructional materials and content developers’ need for additional guidance exists across subjects, and 2) Students don’t use language in isolation. They use language for specific purposes and thus any guidance we provide must be anchored to the discipline. 

In response, we have begun developing a set of science guidelines that thoughtfully incorporates what we learned from developing the ELA and Math guidelines and critically considers what this guidance looks like in a science context.

At ELSF, we believe it is essential that the guidance we provide to content developers reflects not only our expertise, but also the voice from across the field of science education. To ensure this, we began development by bringing together a variety of experts–educators, field-leading researchers, content developers, professional learning providers, professors focused on pre-service education, science experts, and more. 

Through a series of design meetings, focus groups, and follow-up consultations, we have emerged with a comprehensive set of Science Guidelines. These guidelines outline the essential characteristics and features of instructional materials that have the potential to transform science classrooms into rich learning environments for our multilingual students. 

This is just the first step on an exciting journey towards high-quality instructional materials for Science designed explicitly with multilingual learners in mind. In the upcoming months, we will pilot and test the Guidelines with collaborating content developers to ensure they are truly usable and impactful for reviewing and improving standards-aligned science materials. By the end of this road, we aim to provide a powerful tool that is not merely reflective of the expertise that ELSF brings to this work, but also the wealth of expertise of our many partners, collaborators, and contributors. 

We’re looking forward to bringing you along on this process as we work towards launching the final version of the guidelines by January 2023.

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Lauren Stoll

Lauren Stoll works at SCALE Science at Stanford University, focusing on NGSS-aligned curriculum, assessment, and professional learning development. Prior to her work at SCALE, she taught science in large and diverse urban public school districts in Oakland and Berkeley, California. Lauren’s experiences of making critical connections between theory and practice within her own classroom led her to a need to investigate how advances in curricular and assessment approaches can be a tool for social and racial empowerment on a broader scale. In her work as an education consultant, she seeks to blend her classroom experience, an expertise in the Next Generation Science Standards, and a grounding in equitable instruction to design materials that support all teachers and all students. She hopes these materials will support students’ science and language learning in integration by emphasizing and scaffolding language output for science-specific sense-making.

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