The Role of Science in Boosting Outcomes for English Learners

All too often, English learners (ELs) do not receive the same educational opportunities as their non-EL peers. This pattern manifests in a variety of ways, including the disparate levels of access that ELs have to high-quality science instruction. Indeed, a recent Education Trust-West study of California school districts found that ELs are significantly underrepresented in advanced science courses throughout the state. The report also notes that ELs consistently score lower than the rest of the population on statewide science assessments at all grade levels.

And yet, there are some bright spots. The study also highlights several exemplary districts leveraging science, in particular, to drive equity for ELs. These districts see science instruction as means to boosting academic outcomes across all core content areas.

But how can teaching science help students who are not fluent in English catch up to their classmates in social studies, reading, math, and other subjects? According to the authors, science is unique in nature as a school subject for ELs. Among other things, it builds background knowledge, exposes students to a range of new vocabulary, and requires them to collaborate with one another while conducting experiments, providing ample opportunities for oral language practice.

This sounds great in theory, but what does it look like for districts to prioritize EL equity through science instruction? The report outlines five effective strategies that the exemplary school district utilize in providing equitable science instruction for their EL populations.

The first of these strategies is to provide high-quality professional development for teachers to build science knowledge and integrate science instruction with English literacy instruction. Teachers can do this by aligning the CA English language development (ELD) standards and the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) to make them complementary. For example, Calipatria School District trains its teachers in ELD techniques, which allows them to incorporate language learning and academic vocabulary into all subjects. Oakland Unified School District provides its teachers with a "Roadmap to ELL Achievement,” which outlines effective methods of integrating language learning techniques into other content areas such as science.

An organization called Making Sense of Science (MSS) has similarly taken a more integrated approach to language learning. Across several states, which includes California as well as Texas and North Carolina, MSS provides a range of teacher professional development and other materials intended to combine science and literacy. Teachers who participate in this program claim that they can see its impact on student achievement. In fact, one study found that students whose teachers participated in MSS outperformed other students by nearly 40 percent, with ELs making the largest gains over two years.

Second, some of the California school districts engage in partnerships with science institutions such as the Exploratorium, a science museum based in San Francisco. Partnering with these institutions can provide invaluable virtual and in-person instructional expertise for the classroom, which increases the quality and amount of science instruction available to students.

A third strategy implemented by some school districts is to systematically increase science instructional time for ELs in early grades. While nearly every elementary teacher surveyed in a different study believed that science should be taught as early as kindergarten, 92 percent stated that they had limited time for it. Leaders in Oak Grove School District have committed to increasing science instructional time for young ELs through the implementation of their Sobrato Early Academic Language (SEAL) program. One of the purposes of SEAL is to increase young ELs’ exposure to academic language through science instruction. By integrating language learning into science instruction, teachers are able to combine multiple sets of standards and spend more time on science instruction than before.

Fourth, the authors argue that districts must encourage innovative, multilingual strategies to advance science learning for ELs. Research suggests that English learners in multilingual settings often outperform their EL peers in English-only settings in the long-term. With the recent passage of Proposition 58, California public schools are once again free to provide bilingual education services for ELs (Proposition 227 severely hindered their ability to do so after its passage in 1998). Calipatria Unified School District is one example of a place where leaders are pushing for multilingual instruction in core subjects, including science. Leaders there have focused on recruiting certified multilingual teachers. Likewise, Westminster School District opened California’s first Vietnamese dual language program, followed by a Spanish dual language program. Through these programs, the district is teaching academic content in the majority of its students’ native languages.

Finally, the authors recommend using funding from the local control funding formula (LCFF) to advance science instruction for ELs. LCFF is a mechanism in California which allocates funding proportionately to districts that serve the most disadvantaged students (including ELs), with the stipulation that funding must be used to improve outcomes for those students. Across the state, several districts are using these LCFF funds to invest in science programming. For instance, Imperial Unified School District has used its LCFF funding to hire EL program assistants to offer instructional strategies to teachers in both ELD and core subjects. Westminster School District used part of its funding to design grade-level units that incorporate ELD standards with science.

Taken together, the findings and recommendations of the recent report underscore the potential of innovative science instruction to achieve equity for ELs. Beyond California, a concerted effort to expand and integrate science opportunities throughout the school day could greatly benefit EL students across the country.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine will host an upcoming event in Washington D.C. on how to better support ELs in STEM subjects. Presentations will be livestreamed Wednesday, July 26 (10:30 am to 3 pm) and Thursday, July 27 (10:45 am to 12:30 pm).


Tony Hanna is a Summer 2017 intern with the Education Policy program's Dual Language Learners National Work Group.