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Teaching Earth Science to ESL Students

Instructor: Jesse Richter

Jesse holds two masters, a doctorate and has 15 years of academic experience in areas of education, linguistics, business and science across five continents.

Searching for some tips on how to teach earth science to ESL students? This lesson puts a new spin on teaching earth science in the context of ESL learners. Pedagogical concepts and tangible ideas for implementation are provided.

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.

Since science is universal, there are many ways to teach students about the characteristics and processes found on the Earth without depending on the English language.

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.

Using Visuals

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.

Why not allow ESL students to demonstrate comprehension of the water cycle via an illustration instead of a written exam?

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.

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