Jesse holds two masters, a doctorate and has 15 years of academic experience in areas of education, linguistics, business and science across five continents.
Solving Alejandro's Dilemma
Alejandro is an experienced high school earth science teacher. This year, he's been assigned to teach a class of non-native students who have been grouped together according to their English as a second language (ESL) status. Alejandro, although competent in a handful of foreign languages, is required by the school to instruct in English, yet he has no prior experienced with the diverse population in his class. How can Alejandro effectively and efficiently teach earth science to his ESL students?
Approaching Science as a Language
Unlike some language-intensive content areas, such as social studies, English literature and history (among others), science is, in a sense, its own language. This is because scientific concepts are mostly universal and present in some form or another in all cultures throughout the world. A typical history class in the U.S., on the other hand, will usually only examine bits of history that are relevant to that culture. For this reason, there are many ways to teach science without having to depend on the English language; let's explore some of the strategies for accomplishing this mission with ESL learners.
Leveraging Background Knowledge
Since science is universally recognized, we as teachers can tap into the existing knowledge bases of our ESL students. It is quite likely that they have already had a significant amount of exposure to science in previous studies, either in the current cultural context or abroad.
The field of earth science specifically pulls from a combination of foundational sciences, such as chemistry, physics and mathematics. Accordingly, earth science is observable almost anywhere one might be, especially considering the fact that all human-made products came from raw earth materials at some point.
Getting to know what your students already know about math and science can be a wonderful asset as you plan your earth science curricula. Take the time to explore your ESL students' backgrounds and perhaps develop various diagnostic tools to get the year started.
In earth science classes, visuals are invaluable in both instruction and assessment. By sharing photos of geologic features from around the world, the strategic teacher can expose students to a wide variety of concepts when field trips may not be plausible. Visuals are useful in the earth science classroom because Mother Nature is highly visual in comparison to some other sciences, such as physics, chemistry and mathematics, which are typically presented by merely writing on the board.
During assessments, ESL students will be limited in their abilities to complete traditional written examinations. As an alternative, consider allowing ESL students to draw pictures, diagrams, maps and charts, or even demonstrate comprehension using props.
Using Authentic Materials
Authentic materials for earth science classes are available almost everywhere, and they are cost-free in most cases. During your commute to school and recreation time, consider collecting small samples from Mother Nature, such as rocks, plant debris, soil, sand and shells. Bringing these into the classroom is an easy way to provide authentic materials. These physical items also allow students to learn by examining materials in their own hands.
It is important to notice how the filter system works here: While students can explore authentic materials independently during their out-of-school free time, they may not know exactly what they are looking at and have questions, like ''Is this a sedimentary rock or a metamorphic rock?'' However, when a professionally trained earth science teacher selects materials and then presents them to students, that teacher is able to facilitate students' interpretations of those materials and make connections between perceptive and scientific realities.
Earth science cannot always be directly observed, but we can make models in order to study key concepts inside the classroom. With carefully planned and executed teacher demonstrations and facilitation, ESL students are better able to grasp earth science concepts without becoming frustrated by their language barriers. Models are also engaging and tangible. If authentic materials cannot be obtained, alternative materials, like modeling clay, paper mache and other manipulatives, may be used to mimic various earth science processes, such as the water, carbon, rock and nitrogen cycles.
As shown in this image, ESL students can explore the geologic time scale by creating a scale-sized paper model. The model was developed from a teacher-created worksheet that facilitated student calculations of time vs. length in order to make an accurate (and illustrated) model of this otherwise abstract concept.
This lesson discussed earth science as a language and presented several readily adaptable strategies for facilitating English as a second language (ESL) students while strategically traversing the language barrier. The lesson also emphasized and provided examples of leveraging prior knowledge and using visuals, authentic materials and models.
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