What Science Teachers Should Know About Teaching English Learners


June 2018


Two students doing chemistry experiment

Based on research, we identified key principles that teachers with English learner students in their classrooms should know. These principles are “big ideas” or concepts about second language acquisition and the academic challenges English learners face.

These two principles apply to science teachers. See additional principles that apply to all teachers as well as teachers in other subject areas, including language arts, math, and social studies.

Principle 1: Science inquiry poses particular linguistic challenges for English learners.

Like other content areas, science has content‐specific meanings of words and ways of using language. When these are unfamiliar to students learning English, they can interfere with the learning of science.

Teachers should:

  • Include hands‐on, collaborative inquiry, which helps English learners clarify concepts and provides practice in using language in scientific ways
  • Build English language and literacy development into science lessons for English learners

Principle 2: The norms and practices of science may or may not align with the cultural norms of English learners.

The core of science education in the U.S. centers on inquiry—questioning, predicting, hypothesizing, and testing. These norms may not align with the cultures of some English learners, who, for example, are sometimes raised to respect the authority of adults and therefore may be reluctant to question the teacher or text.

Teachers should:

  • Incorporate English learners’ cultural “funds of knowledge” into science instruction
  • Make the norms and expectations of science inquiry clear and explicit to help English learners bridge cultural differences

To learn more about the services we provide to states, districts, and schools to better support English learner students, visit our area of work page and contact Kelli Scardina.