How to Enliven Your ESL Classes with Interactive Science Lessons
Have you found it?
It’s that nugget of language gold that comes when you teach content areas!
You know, subjects like social studies, math and science.
Perhaps you have never considered teaching these areas before, but the truth is that teaching content—even when your students have already learned it in their first language—is a highway to the Shangri-La of English language learning.
Science is an all-around hit, with so many brilliant opportunities for engaging activities and hands-on learning.
To make sure these science lessons are successful with your English learners, below are five elements each should have.
Why to Use Science Lessons with ESL Students
It’s simple: When you teach students content, especially content that they’re already familiar with, they have a leg up on the lesson. They can focus on the language you’re using because they already know the information you’re presenting.
Not only that, but because they already have the information established in their brains, they will be able to link the specific language that you use to that brain area. And those naturally occurring connections in the brain mean your students are moving beyond language learning into language acquisition.
And let’s not forget about those kinesthetic learners in your classroom either. Science lessons are great for implementing hands-on education. Students can explore and discover the natural elements of the lesson and the world while learning the vocabulary and grammar that goes with it, even if they don’t already know how to measure wind speed.
As if you needed any more reasons, science lessons are also great for getting students out of the classroom. Not every science lesson is conducive to a lab on the playground, but many of them are. Getting your students outside will make your lesson more memorable and exciting. And if you’re really lucky, it will let your students burn off some energy so they can sit and pay attention when it’s time to go back into the classroom.
5 Elements of Successful ESL Science Lessons
If you’re interested in teaching science lessons as a regular part of your ESL classes, you might want to check out the book “Making Science Accessible to English Learners” by John Carr et. al. In it, the author stresses five elements of a successful science lesson and how they relate to English learners.
These elements aren’t necessarily chronological, though they can be. Students can also move back and forth between the elements as they learn by your prompting or through their natural discovery process. Either way, including these five elements is your guarantee that ESL students will succeed in your science lesson.
In the engage portion of your lesson, the goal is, as you might have guessed, to engage your students. You want to get them interested. This should happen at the beginning of your lesson, but it can also happen as students learn more about the topic they’re studying or as they see results of their experiments and want to know more.
At the start of your lesson, you’ll want to help students remember what they already know about the topic at hand, so they can make natural connections to that knowledge. You might also ask them questions to get them thinking about the topic.
For example, before doing an experiment on ideal conditions for growing plants, you might ask the following:
- Have you ever tried growing a garden?
- What did you do to help the plants grow?
- Have you ever visited a greenhouse?
- What was that like?
- Do you have any houseplants?
- How do you take care of them?
And of course, when you start a project, you’ll want to communicate your expectations at the outset.
There are plenty of ways to engage students and get them thinking about a new topic. One of my favorites is doing a K/W/L chart. It’s a simple three-column list.
- K: In the first column, brainstorm with your class what they already know about the topic at hand.
- W: In the second column, brainstorm any questions they might have, the things they want to know.
- L: The third column gets filled in after the unit is complete and is a list of what they learned throughout the unit.
Another great way to engage your students (and get a speaking activity in at the same time) is to ask about past experiences they have with the topic. Let students talk with two or three other students and swap stories.
Other activities you can do in this stage include the following:
- Introduce vocabulary with pictures.
- Read a book or do some research on the topic.
- Explore the topic through a science center or a display that students can use during free learning periods.
- Read statements about the topic to students and ask them to agree or disagree and share their thoughts with a partner.
In the explore phase, students are finding out more information. They will pose hypotheses, do experiments and work independently through experimentation and investigation to learn more about the topic. Your role in this phase is to direct your students as they learn.
For ESL students, try to choose hands-on experiments which don’t have too many steps (limit it to five if possible) and which are more tangible than theoretical. Try some of these experiments from Science Kids or these from Parenting Magazine.
Especially if you teach younger learners, you may want to look into Little Passports educational products, which include a subscription option for monthly “science kits” with hands-on STEM activities. (These could be adapted for individual and group projects in the classroom or given as a recommendation to parents for kids to continue their science education outside of school.)
You might try giving your students some if/then statements to guide them in their research. If you do this, then what will happen? You might give students directions for an experiment to follow, or you may just have them discuss the topic with other students. It’s also possible to let students do some research at this point. (Reading comprehension, anyone?)
Whenever possible, students should start with a hypothesis and write down their observations as they experiment. These observations can be in either sentences or pictures. You might also encourage students to use the think-pair-share technique, in which students engage in structured discussion.
In the explain phase, students are putting into language what they’ve learned. You may need to give them some technical vocabulary at this point, if you haven’t already taught it and if students aren’t able to find it on their own.
A good way to start the explanation process is to have students explain their observations to another student. Together they can come up with the “rules” that they observed (aka scientific laws). For example, students might make this rule: A plant that does not get light will not grow. Or a plant that receives salt water will die. Point out that for any rule they come up with, they should be able to support it with direct observations.
At this point, students might also pose other possible solutions. This is a great time to tie in the conditional form in English, too. For example, if a plant does not get pure water then it will not grow.
When students elaborate, we’re not talking about using more words to say the same thing. This is where they take what they’ve learned and apply it to new but related or similar situations.
To do this, they might design new experiments or reimagine the same experiment in a different situation. For example, if they experimented with weather effects on tomato plants, they might make predictions about the same weather effects on cucumber plants.
In this stage, students are engaged in higher-level thinking: comparing and contrasting, synthesizing and making inferences.
They’re also using the new vocabulary they’ve learned, perhaps while writing out a process for a new experiment.
This phase of the science lesson is also a great place to lead into a class science fair in which everyone applies the information they learned in a unique situation.
We teachers like to talk about assessment, and evaluation is just another word for taking a test, right? Wrong. The best evaluation comes on many levels.
Throughout your science lesson, your students will be evaluating the information they observe as well as the effectiveness of the process. In addition to this, you’ll want to give students evaluation on their performance in both language and scientific knowledge and performance. Here are a few ways to do this:
- What was learned. If you filled in a K/W/L chart at the start of your science lesson, now is the time to revisit it. Students will evaluate what they learned and how many of their original questions they’re now able to answer.
- The good, the bad and the ugly. Another good self-assessment students can use is what I like to call “the good, the bad and the ugly.” Students discuss with a partner or small group what worked throughout the process, what didn’t work, and what they would change in the future.
- Numbered heads together. Here’s another technique you can use to see what students have learned, in which students answer questions together in groups, but don’t know who will be called on to answer any individual question. You can read more about this cooperative learning strategy here.
I hope I’ve given you some good reasons to teach science content in your ESL classroom.
I know I’ve found it one of the most enjoyable ways to teach, and have marveled at its effectiveness in bringing about fluency in my ESL students.