Meeting the Needs of Limited English Proficient Students
in Science Instruction

by Barbara J. Becker

Southwest Regional Laboratory (1993)


Teaching science successfully to limited English proficient (LEP) students is a growing challenge for educators, particularly in the Southwest United States.  In California, the number of LEP students has more than doubled in the past ten years and is rapidly approaching the one million mark, or 20% of the total student population in the State (CDE, 1992).  The percentage of LEP students in Arizona schools is increasing at a slightly higher rate than the student population as a whole and currently constitutes approximately 10% of Arizona's 684,524 students (Hafner and Green, 1992; McCain, 1992).   Nevada and Utah have far fewer LEP students in their school populations compared with California and Arizona, but their numbers are nonetheless significant with recent estimates set at approximately 9,000 (4%) and 11,000 (2%) respectively (Hafner and Green, 1992; UDE, 1990).

The majority of LEP students in each of these states are native Spanish speakers.  Individuals with little direct experience in today's classrooms in the Western region have occasionally drawn erroneous conclusions from this fact, to the effect that:

In reality, there is considerably greater diversity among students whose first language is not English.  Some ninety different languages are spoken by California school children, including Cambodian, Khmer, and Hmong (CDE, 1992).  There are some classrooms in California in which as many as ten different languages are spoken.  A recent survey of novice teachers in 81 California metropolitan school districts found that 10% of these teachers were placed into classes having students from five language backgrounds.  Nearly one quarter of new teachers surveyed taught classes in which students spoke two languages other than English (Dianda, 1991).  The array of languages found in Arizona schools includes Arabic as well as Navajo and other Native American languages (McCain, 1992).  Teachers, on the other hand, are ethnically and linguistically homogeneous as a group (Dianda 1992), with inadequate numbers of them sufficiently fluent in a second language to carry out routine instruction in it.

Decades ago, the landmark Bilingual Education Act (1968) and the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Lau v. Nichols (1974) increased public awareness of the challenges which limited English proficient students present to the educational process (Fillmore, 1991 and 1992).  In spite of this, today's schools are ill-equipped to provide adequate, let alone optimum, instruction to LEP students, particularly in multilingual classrooms.  Utah's Department of Education has found that funds received through the federal Title VII Bilingual Education program are insufficient to serve even one quarter of the state's LEP students (UDE, 1990).  Although the majority of California's new teachers teach classes with significant numbers of LEP students, few of them are properly credentialed to teach in a language-diverse classroom (Dianda, 1991).  In 1991, the ratio of LEP students to credentialed teachers was 114:1 (Hafner and Green, 1992).  Very few qualified LEP teachers are credentialed in languages like Cambodian (0) or Hmong (1) despite the large numbers of students (19,234 and 18,091, respectively) who need instruction in those languages (Hafner and Green, 1992; CDE, 1992).

The Challenge for Teachers of Content Subjects

Providing instruction aimed at language acquisition and development is challenge enough, but when the object is to convey information traditionally viewed as outside the boundaries of language arts -- science or mathematics, for example -- the challenges become more complex requiring special attention and professional support.

Mathematics is frequently the first academic, or so-called "content" subject to which an LEP student is introduced for regular classroom instruction, hence mathematics instruction in multilingual classroom settings has generated a rich literature (Santos, 1992; Medrano, 1988; Fradd, 1987; Berry, 1985; Cuevas, 1984; Tsang, 1984; Castellanos, 1980; Gonzalez, 1980).  Teaching science to LEP students, on the other hand, has drawn less attention (see, for example, Sutman, Allen and Shoemaker, 1986; Chamot, 1985; Olsen and Huckin, 1983; and Gonzales, 1981).

The aim of this brief report is to suggest ways in which current theory on second language acquisition can be consolidated into a practical strategy for teaching science to LEP students of all ages and abilities.  It will begin with a discussion of the limited guidelines available to science teachers in the Western region for insuring that all their students gain an appreciation and understanding of the natural world and how it works.  Then, this report will present a brief overview of current theory on optimizing content acquisition in a second language.  It will conclude by suggesting ways to apply this theory to practical classroom situations.

State Science Curriculum Frameworks

In spite of the large numbers of LEP students in Western region schools, there is little in states' science curriculum frameworks to assist science educators in creating a program in science instruction that will optimize the learning of this group of students.  The science curriculum frameworks developed in Nevada and Utah do not address the issue at all (NDE, 1992a and 1992b, UDE, 1991a and 1991b).  Arizona's framework contains a number of good general suggestions for making science more accessible to a wider range of students in order to assure both gender parity and non-exclusion of minority students.  Even so, the issue of student language proficiency is not discussed directly.

The recently developed Science Framework for California Public Schools addresses briefly but succinctly, the challenges faced by science teachers as they attempt to make the experience of mastering the theory and practice of scientific investigation as meaningful as possible to all students in their classrooms (CDE, 1990).  It contains a special section specifically on the teaching of LEP students.  Seven basic techniques are recommended as providing the optimum learning environment for these students, namely:

These suggestions for improving classroom practice are aimed at teachers who provide instruction in English to LEP students.  They assume no special teacher training or credential, and contain little that is pedagogically innovative.  Rather, these suggested techniques expand upon familiar instructional practices to guide teachers in a non-intimidating way toward modifying their classroom routine.  The aim is to nurture each child's sense of self-esteem and science competence so that all students can be included in the learning process.

While the simplicity and unobtrusiveness of the suggested techniques for teaching science to LEP students in California's Framework make it easy for a teacher to implement, it is difficult to predict the degree of improvement in LEP students' science understanding and skill mastery that would result under even a perfect implementation of such a teaching regimen.  Because the recommended techniques are so closely patterned after traditional classroom practice, it is possible for some teachers to see in the brief list of suggested teaching strategies something that so closely resembles their own preferred classroom routine that they believe they are already teaching their LEP students in the most effective way with the result that there is little or no change in their pedagogical approach.  Others may interpret the list as suggesting that the content being presented to LEP students be simplified with the consequence that they water down the content to such an extent that it loses its intrinsic intellectual interest to everyone in the class.  Still others may assume that it is merely their presentation style that is the problem with the result that they speak louder when talking to LEP students, enunciate their words in a more exaggerated way, or even do more of the talking in the classroom in order to avoid the challenge of directing class discussion.  While California's Framework is a start in the right direction, states should be encouraged to take more assertive and innovative steps to provide LEP students with an optimum science education.  These steps should be based on what research has shown to be the most effective methods of teaching children content courses in a language other than their own native tongue.

Teaching Content Effectively to LEP Students

More than a decade ago, Cummins proposed that children learn any new information best when it is taught in their native language (Cummins, 1981).  Later studies have confirmed this important finding (Vega Castaneda, 1992; Perez and Torres-Guzman, 1992; Ramirez, et al., 1992; Crawford, 1989; Cummins, 1989; Cummins and McNeely, 1987; Krashen, 1985a and 1985b; Willig, 1985).  This is especially true when the content is cognitively demanding or abstract (Fillmore, 1992).  But few teachers are sufficiently fluent in a language other than English to provide rigorous instruction.

There are a number of creative alternatives to teacher-provided native language instruction which have been tried with success in other contexts (Dianda, 1992):

Of these, the last example is the most intrusive and requires the greatest energy and commitment from the classroom teacher.  Involving family and community members who share LEP students' first language in the daily routine of the classroom can have immeasurable intellectual, emotional, and social benefits for children adjusting to a new home, a new language, and a new culture.  But it can also present teachers with unanticipated challenges to their classroom management skills and lesson preparation.  Without guidance and strong institutional support, implementing this teaching strategy may seem too risky to venture for most teachers.

State science curriculum frameworks can provide the necessary guidance and support to encourage teachers to experiment with various levels of parent/community involvement in their classroom routine with the specific aim of making science instruction more meaningful to their LEP students.  By drawing on current linguistic and cognitive research in the field of content instruction in a second language, science curriculum frameworks could provide teachers with both general and specific examples of successful practices, anticipated difficulties, and suggested solutions to guide planning and promote successful implementation of this approach.  Teachers must be prepared adequately for the varieties of cultural norms visiting parents and other adults may bring with them into the classroom to enhance both the teacher's and the visitors' comfort level during the encounter.  Teachers must also learn how to incorporate other adults effectively in classroom routine.  When those adults are limited in their English proficiency, the matter can be extremely challenging, even frustrating, for everyone involved unless adequate preparation is provided.  Nevertheless, a supportive school administration, occasional mediation by English-speaking community leaders within the individual ethnic communities served by the school, and persistence and patience on the part of the classroom teacher can enhance the chance of developing a successful program of school/community cooperation with culturally enriching long-term benefits:

At this point it should be noted that the discussion in this paper is based on the assumption that teachers are limited to traditional teaching materials and methods.  This is still a reasonable assumption, but technological advances are moving both teachers and students rapidly away from the constraints imposed by what might be called the paper and pencil mentality.  Apple Computer, Inc., recently announced the release of a literature-based early language arts package, called "Apple Early Language Connections," designed to provide kinergarten through second grade bilingual Spanish and English students with a balanced reading, writing, listening, and speaking curriculum.

Producers of science instructional materials have developed sophisticated interactive video disks and computer software which go farther than other media to erase language barriers in the classroom.  Instructional programs on video disks such as the innovative Windows on Science series, The Living Textbook science series, or ABC News Interactive are recorded in both Spanish and English.  A touch of a remote control immediately switches the audio channel from one language to the other.  Accompanying software provides additional visual support in either language.  Connected suitably to a classroom of individual headphones, these programs permit children to tune in to the language with which they feel most comfortable.  A teacher can alternate between the two languages, repeat individual sequences quickly and efficiently in the two languages successively, or play both languages simultaneously.  The principal drawback to these materials, aside from the cost (roughly $500 per disk, plus the cost of the disk player, screen, and accompanying computer) is the current technical limit of two audio channels.  At the present time there are no disks or software in languages other than Spanish.  Nevertheless, through this medium, sophisticated concepts can be conveyed to native Spanish speaking students by teachers with little or no Spanish language capabilities, a feat which is not possible with traditional means.

The National Geographic Society has recently introduced a new instructional format for multilingual classrooms which blends computer software and telecommunications.  Called Kids Network, this instructional program comes with booklets written in either English or Spanish.  Booklets in other languages are currently being developed.  The computer software is only available in English, but it is highly iconographic so few words are necessary in order to use it successfully.  One of the principal aims of Kids Network is for individual classrooms to work as part of an international team.  Teachers sign up to collaborate on a unit and are placed on a team which can include classrooms in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Russia, or other countries.  Linked through a telecommunications network, the students in these classrooms can communicate with each other in the language of their choice and share the data they have gathered on the assigned project.  The data which can range from counting the numbers and types of pets owned by the children in each classroom to measures of acid rain in their local community, are easily tabulated and graphed using the software included.  Letters on any topic and in any language can be exchanged between the different classrooms on the team through electronic mail.  The interactive potential of this type of teaching tool has only just begun to be exploited.

Turning once again to traditional classrooms, we find another concern which research has raised concerning the ability of LEP students to master subject matter such as science, namely providing sufficient context to insure successful information transfer, retention, and utilization.  Fradd (1987) has found that when people first acquire language skills, they learn best when new information is presented in a highly content-laden format.  Initially this requires concrete, hands-on instructional strategies.  But as experience is gained, reference to past events can be fruitfully incorporated into learning routines, and ultimately future scenarios can be anticipated as students learn to analyze a hypothetical situation and suggest possible outcomes among a set of abstract choices.

The content of elementary science can be made sufficiently concrete to provide LEP students with adequate context to grasp the essential concepts being presented.  But offering elementary age LEP students science instruction that is primarily hands-on in nature may not produce desired positive outcomes.  Even in elementary grades, students are asked to extrapolate from their own experience and predict what will happen when a controlled change is made, or they may be expected to incorporate results from a fictitious experiment meant to serve as support for observations in a current project.  These complex cognitive processes are challenging for the native English speaking elementary school student.  They present intimidating problems for the young LEP student as they both learn to master subtle logical skills of induction and deduction and at the same time confront the task of successfully manipulating and processing words devoid of context.  Being introduced to new material, and allowed to experience the process of information analysis and transfer in their own language makes it easier to engage in similar activities in English later on.  It may even provide the student with a conceptual framework on which to build English language facility.  A science curriculum framework sensitive to the needs of LEP students in the elementary grades will assist teachers in developing innovative ways to introduce these students to science concepts.

Middle and high school LEP students come to their new home with some educational experience in their native country.  This may range from barebones literacy to sophisticated advanced instruction.  Regardless, adolescents are better prepared to handle the rigors of routine school work than their younger counterparts.  However, adolescents are self-conscious and uncomfortable in situations when they have no ability to communicate how much they know.  Being perceived as ignorant is especially embarrassing and frustrating for them.

Adolescents have another serious disadvantage based on the fact that it routinely takes LEP students an average of two years to learn the basic grammar and rudimentary vocabulary needed to make daily conversation.  It can take an additional five to seven years to become proficient enough in English to learn subject matter in a course like science with as much ease as a native English speaker (Collier and Thomas, 1992).  Older adolescents may never become sufficiently fluent in English before they either graduate or withdraw from school to benefit from content courses taught in a traditional way.  Teachers and administrators may mistake conversational facility with ability to master subject-specific vocabulary and remove adolescent LEP students from learning environments where they receive more language support.  The disparity between conversational language ability and academic mastery interferes with the assessment of an LEP student's performance.  Retention then becomes a serious concern.  If one of our national goals is to increase the number of women and underrepresented minorities in engineering and science, we cannot afford to alienate these students for reasons unrelated to their scientific reasoning skills or interests.  Science curriculum frameworks are needed which suggest teaching strategies designed to captivate the natural intellectual adolescent curiosity and take advantage of their advanced reasoning skills and experience without placing so much emphasis on language facility.


In reality, the language of science, itself, is unfamiliar enough to most secondary school students to be considered a second language for them.  Scientific specialties develop a jargon which serves not only to clarify and standardize communication among the practitioners of that specialty, but also to demarcate the specialty from other disciplines and to single out its elite core from those individuals operating more casually on the periphery.  This exclusionary function of scientific language serves important socializing purposes within the professional and amateur scientific community (Hagstrom, 1965; Pickering, 1984).  But when it works well, it effectively inhibits those individuals outside the boundaries of the discipline who may seek to gain entry.  Practicing scientists, like members of any licensed profession, wish to control access to the inner circle.  This is essential to keep in mind as one considers the use of language in the learning of science.

Science instruction has a built-in emphasis on the positive clarifying function of scientific language, and this has justified exposure of students to a lexicon of specialized terms.  But it is poor pedagogical practice to view the mastery of these terms as emblematic of a student's having gained a solid understanding of the deeper concepts and processes which the terms represent.  Curiosity, innovative problem solving, and observation drive productive scientific investigation.  These skills have been traditionally viewed as independent of language, although recent debates among philosophers of science have raised serious questions about this claim.  Nevertheless, they are skills which can be, and often are, acquired through imitation and adept positive reinforcement, a valuable feature which can be adapted to creative and effective classroom use.  Activities designed to increase students' opportunities to improve upon these skills will enhance all students' appreciation of scientific practice.

On the other hand, communicating what has been observed requires the ability to translate non-verbal sensory data into words or symbols which can instill in their recipient a sensory image close, if not identical, to that experienced by the original investigator.  This extremely complex process is a challenge for native speakers.  Ambiguities in sensory data collected are amplified as the constraints and foibles of artificially constructed language impose themselves on the transmission process.  A certain degree of noise is introduced into the message as it travels to a secondary witness.  We say that the message has been received and understood successfully when the recipient is able to replicate the observation, and obtain results which the original investigator accepts as sufficiently identical to her own.  Much of this success depends on the the use of a mutually agreed upon language to transmit the information.  LEP students will find this phase of scientific endeavor challenging and even frustrating.

By analyzing the stages through which new understanding is achieved about the workings of the natural world , we can isolate those discrete phases in which language plays an important role.  Science curriculum frameworks which sensitize educators to the fact that successful scientific investigation is not entirely language-dependent, free them to create classroom activities which rely on students' mastery of other less language-dependent skills, skills which can serve to enhance LEP students' self-esteem, provide them direct access to means of investigating the natural world, and at the same time motivate them to develop the language skills needed to share their new knowledge with others.


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