Engaging English Language Learners in Science


February 27, 2013


English Language Learners read book with female teacher

For an English language learner (ELL), the science classroom can be a frustrating place. As their classmates focus on the scientific concept being studied, ELLs often feel left behind as they struggle to decipher between academic and vernacular English. And, many adult family members don’t feel they have the expertise or the vocabulary to teach science at home. An outreach program called Playtime Is Science, however, can help schools and families engage ELLs in this important subject.

Playtime Is Science is an equity-based program to encourage underrepresented student populations to get excited about science, using parents as teachers at home and in the classroom. Education Northwest facilitates Playtime Is Science sessions at various events and venues, such as the Oregon Association for Comprehensive Education conference held last month. There, staff members Joyce Harris and Moses Wambalaba held a four-hour Playtime Is Science workshop for 135 parents, children, and educators. Simulating a science fair, the facilitators modeled for participants—in English and Spanish—how to conduct experiments using scientific methods and everyday household materials.

According to Harris, “In Playtime Is Science workshops, we demonstrate research-based approaches for engaging families such as comprehensible input, building background, and practice/application. We show participants how to set up and conduct each activity, and then give them the opportunity to practice and apply what they have learned,” she explains. Translators are often on hand as well, to assist in multilingual instruction.

In addition to helping families experiment with science and use scientific terminology at home, Harris and Wambalaba encourage parents to volunteer by conducting hands-on activities in their child’s classroom or by organizing a “Super Saturday Science Fair” event for their school community.

Harris and her staff in the EAC also offer trainings in Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol (SIOP), a program that helps ELLs acquire grade-level content knowledge while increasing their English proficiency. To discuss bringing a Playtime Is Science or SIOP workshop to your site or educational event, contact Joyce Harris.