STEM Inclusion Research for English Language Learners (ELLs): Making STEM Accessible to All

Emily K. Suh, Lisa Hoffman and Alan Zollman

Learning environments in many global educational contexts are becoming increasingly linguistically and culturally diverse. STEM educators often are not trained to work with students whose home language is not the dominant language of instruction (Hart & Lee, 2003). These educators would benefit from increased understanding of language development (Henry, Bakes, & Nistor, 2014; Janzen, 2008). According to the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine

(2018), attention to culturally and linguistically diverse STEM students’ educational needs is particularly important considering the historical inequities and lack ot diversity among STEM professions and professionals.

After introducing some relevant terminology from the field of second language acquisition (SLA), this chapter addresses the following areas of STEM education research related to English language learners (ELLs): (1) emergent areas of collaboration between STEM educators and applied linguistics researchers, (2) overlap between STEM and language acquisition standards, (3) research-based practices for language development and content mastery, (4) professional development for STEM educators’ understanding of SLA, literacy instruction, and assessment, and (5) areas for future research.

Rationale for Considering Language and Culture in STEM Education Research

As multilinguals come to represent an increasing proportion of students, emergent multilingualism in the content areas has received increasing attention (Buxton & Lee, 2014; Barwell, 2009). Discipline-specific academic vocabulary and language functions can differ markedly from conversational language use (Cummins, 2005). Registers are features within a language used to vary formality, tone or meaning (Halliday, 1988). Although students often acquire basic interpersonal communication skills in two or fewer years, their academic content knowledge and registers develop in interrelated and lengthier processes (Collier & Thomas, 2009). Research suggests it takes a minimum of five to seven years of continuous linguistic support for students to develop an academic register (Cummins, 2005). Educators often assume that students must have advanced language proficiency before they can understand grade-level content, but research documents how the two types ot learning can be successfully integrated (Stoddart, Pinal, Latzke, & Canaday, 2002). Furthermore, research consistently identifies the importance of personal relationships and mutual respect between teachers and learners of all backgrounds. STEM educators need training to develop personal and cultural connections with students from diverse backgrounds (Oliveira, Weinburgh, McBride, Bobowski, & Shea, 2019; Hudley & Mallinson, 2017). Future research could address issues of inequitable curriculum access and assessment practices in STEM (Mallinson & Charity Hudley, 2014).

Emergent multilinguals lace challenges related to the language registers required for STEM learning. Multilingual students utilize their knowledge of multiple languages and registers and additional meaning-making modalities to participate in STEM contexts and activities (National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, 2018). STEM content is inseparable from the language through which it is presented, and research indicates that proficiency in English is a strong predictor of success in STEM disciplines (Howie, 2003). Additionally, individual disciplines present their own unique challenges and opportunities tor language development. For example, students must develop multi- semiotic reasoning within complex mathematical discourse (de Oliveira & Cheng, 2011; Ellerton & Clarkson, 1996; Hansen-Thomas & Bright, 2019), but research indicates that when ELLs receive continued literacy support, they can increase their mathematical reasoning (Henry et al., 2014). Science registers focused on interpretation and use of evidence can present additional linguistic challenges, particularly because ot written disciplinary expectations (Rosenthal, 1996), yet science instruction is often de-emphasized in favor of basic literacy and numeracy skills (Lee & Avalos, 2002). The open-endedness of authentic engineering tasks allows ELLs to demonstrate understanding by exploring and producing a material product. Less research is available on technology and engineering education among ELLs, suggesting future research potential for examining language acquisition within these disciplines, particularly related to issues of access to technology and hands-on experiences. Available research investigates both the linguistic challenges within the STEM disciplines and the unique knowledge and abilities ELLs bring to the classroom (Dos Santos, 2019; Esquinca, de la Piedra, & Herrera-Rocha, 2018).

Language and STEM Standards

In many countries there is overlap between standards for acquiring the dominant language (i.e., the PreK-12 English Language Proficiency Standards Framework released by the international organization; Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, 2006) and STEM area proficiencies (see Cheuk, 2013; Lee, Quinn, & Valdes, 2013). These standards provide recommendations for student proficiency, teacher professional development and practices, and assessment. Both language and STEM standards emphasize developing all students’ ability to communicate and apply their knowledge, such as by using academic language to analyze or make evidence-based arguments (Lin & Zhang, 2014; National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, 2018; 1TEEA, 2007; TESOL, 2006; WIDA, 2012). The U.S. Common Core standards identify practices for mathematics, science and engineering, and English language acquisition (Common Core, n.d.) and include using evidence to support complex textual analysis, and to construct, critique, and enhance arguments (Cheuk, 2013). The Principles and Standards for School Mathematics similarly call for students to be able to make sense of and apply critical information to real-world situations (NCTM, 2000).

Recommendations tor teaching include teacher training and classroom practices emphasizing English language learners’ ability to communicate in the content areas, including mathematics and science (TESOL, 2006). The Committee on Supporting English Learners in STEM Subjects recommends teacher learning opportunities to introduce and develop curriculum, research-based practices, and assessments that support ELLs (National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, 2018). The committee further recommends that schools and teachers collaborate with families and community organizations to directly engage ELLs and understand their assets and growth areas. Other disciplines (e.g., technology and engineering; see 1TEEA, 2007) and language development standards (Lin & Zhang, 2014; WIDA, 2012) share this emphasis on local contexts.

Related to classroom practice, language development and STEM standards emphasize creating language-rich classroom environments with opportunities for practical application. Language learners benefit from context-rich language environments in which they can demonstrate comprehension through application (W1DA, 2012). The National Research Council’s (2012) “Framework for K-12 Science Education” similarly embeds language instruction in science and engineering education practices (Lee et al., 2013), and the Next Generation Science Standards include providing rich language learning environments (NGSS Lead States, 2013).

Finally, STEM and language acquisition standards both provide assessment recommendations. The Committee on Supporting English Learners in STEM Subjects advocates for increasing the representativeness ot sample populations for large-scale STEM assessments, reviewing accommodations policies, and developing accessibility resources or new STEM assessments (National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, 2018). In addition to issues ot equitable access, English language acquisition standards emphasize assessing language use tor specific communicative purposes (TESOL, 2006; W1DA, 2012). International assessments of STEM proficiencies similarly focus on communication for daily living. The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) measures broad knowledge and skills in science, mathematics and reading literacy as they are relevant to students’real-world preparation (Carr, 2016).

Research-Based Practices for STEM Content Mastery and Language Development

This section introduces research-based practices including respecting students’ cultural and community assets, building off students’ first language knowledge, introducing STEM-related academic discourses, and prioritizing vocabulary acquisition. The section also includes high-impact teaching strategies for STEM learners developing English proficiency.

Cultural norms and community knowledge play a significant role in students’ sense-making ot their educational environments (Esmonde & Caswell, 2010). Cultural norms affect forms of reasoning, inquiry, and argumentation valued in STEM fields (Johnson & Bolshakova, 2015). Effective STEM education with emergent multilinguals considers students’“funds of knowledge”—that is, their wealth of background knowledge from family and community resources—and incorporates cultural knowledge and beliefs into STEM learning (Moll, Amanti, Neff, & Gonzalez, 1992). Even when ELLs are not literate or academically proficient in their first language, making connections to communities’ funds of knowledge can positively impact students’ STEM learning (Buxton, Allexsaht-Snider, & Rivera, 2013). One aspect of accessing funds ot knowledge is explicit family involvement in STEM education. Family involvement can be particularly significant for culturally and linguistically diverse students, families, and communities (Wassell, Hawrylak, & Scantlebury, 2017) and is identified as an essential practice by STEM education organizations, such as ITEEA (2007) and the National Research Council (2013).

Whether or not STEM educators speak a student’s first language, they can leverage students’ existing linguistic strengths to develop target language skills while acquiring STEM content knowledge (Hansen-Thomas & Bright, 2019; Oliveira et al., 2019). Learning about students’ first language(s) can help STEM educators access vocabulary learning opportunities. For example, Reed, Medina, Martinez, and Veleta (2013) found that over 85% of terms in biology textbooks and standards had Spanish-English cognates. Explicitly teaching students about cognates and word roots allows students proficient in languages with Latin and Greek roots to access STEM content vocabulary by connecting new terminology to home language (Echevarria, Vogt, & Short, 2012). Even if students have not previously learned STEM content vocabulary in their first language, explicit word root connections allow students to make associations among known words with similar roots. Understanding difficult aspects of language development can also help educators recognize assets and pinpoint challenges students from all language backgrounds are likely to face (Wong Fillmore & Snow, 2002). Teachers also need to recognize additional challenges faced by preliterate students, students from cultures without written forms ot language, students with interrupted formal education, and students who have learning disabilities (Helman, Calhoon, & Kern, 2015). These students—indeed, all students— benefit greatly from multimodal forms ot teaching that provide multiple types of input and avenues for expressing STEM content (McVee, Silvestri, Shanahan, & English, 2017; Takeuchi, 2015; Mana- vathu & Zhou, 2012).

In discussing STEM topics with students, educators bring learners into the academic discourse of a particular community ot knowledge (Willey, Gatza, & Flessner, 2017; Yerrick & Gilbert, 2011). Understanding content area discourses is essential for learning and engagement with complex STEM topics (Reyes, 2008). For example, DiGisi and Fleming (2005) documented how students’ scores improved on high-stakes assessments after explicit instruction in reading and interpreting math questions. Limited empirical research is available on science reading comprehension among language learners (Taboada, Bianco, & Bowerman, 2012), but existing research highlights benefits of attending to print literacy to increase content mastery (Gomez, Lozano, Rodela,& Mancevice, 2013). Moschkovich (2015) proposes that academic literacy in mathematics includes proficiency, practices, and discourse of the field—and that instruction for ELLs must address each ot these components simultaneously.

Academic discourse becomes most accessible when connected to social language (Ryoo, 2015). Among the key points STEM educators need to understand about working with language learners is the difference between social and academic language and that a student’s use of social English does not indicate comparable academic language proficiency (Cummins, 2005). Beck, McKeown, and Kucan (2013) review research into vocabulary learning and identify multiple tiers of vocabulary students need in particular academic fields. For STEM fields, this includes Tier 1 vocabulary (i.e., common words used in conversation) and Tier3 vocabulary (i.e., content-specific words all students learn over the course of a lesson). STEM teachers must also help emergent multilingual students access Tier 2 vocabulary words which are used across STEM fields but which language learners may have never explicitly learned, such as “investigate” and “analyze.” This general academic vocabulary is just as crucial tor academic success as specific academic vocabulary (Haag, Heppt, Stanat, Kuhl, & Pant, 2013). Yet privileging more abstract vocabulary as more “academic” belies the complexity with which students learn about and understand the world (Warren, Ogonowski, & Pothier, 2005).

Vocabulary instruction may be extended or embedded, and research supports a variety of approaches for teaching both Tier 2 and Tier 3 vocabulary—that is, both general academic and discipline- specific language (Echevarria et ah, 2012). Multiple studies demonstrate the benefits of embedded vocabulary in STEM fields (August et al., 2014; Tong, Irby, Lara-Alecio, & Koch, 2014). Science notebooks are one STEM-specific example shown to increase student learning of both disciplinary vocabulary and concepts (Huerta, Tong, Irbv, & Lara-Alecio, 2016). Contextualized vocabulary instruction can include other high-impact instructional strategies, including explicit instruction in reading comprehension strategies embedded within implicit instruction of academic science vocabulary to support student motivation and self-direction (Hagena, Leiss, & Schwippert, 2017).

Teaching strategies supported by research include a number of models integrating STEM content and intentional focus on literacy development (Silva, Weinburgh, Malloy, Smith, & Marshall, 2012; Tong et al., 2014). Gomez et al. (2015) engaged community college mathematics instructors in a successful curriculum redesign process to embed literacy support into mathematics while removing unintended language barriers. Literacy activities are most effective when they include explicit attention to language acquisition and forms, as Kasmer (2013) studied among language learners in Tanzania. The focus on literacy development can follow an apprenticeship model of academic literacy exposure in the STEM discipline (Greenleaf, Schoenbach, Cziko, & Mueller,2001). Educators should encourage students to use their first language in literacy activities; relevant research addressing biliteracy and binumeracy development includes Takeuchi’s (2015) ethnography of classroom mathematics practice and Rubinstein-Avila, Sox, Kaplan, and McGraw’s (2015) study ot collaborative multilingual mathematical problem solving. Effective reading strategies for language learners include text-based questioning activities in science (Taboada et al., 2012) and structured feedback (i.e., Dynamic Strategic Math) for mathematical word problem solving (Orosco, Lee Swanson, O’Connor, & Lussier, 2013). Students also benefit from reading and writing in different genres related to science (Lee & Buxton, 2013).

Inquiry-based STEM instruction has been a successful approach with ELLs in a number ot research studies (Mercuri & Mercuri, 2019; Lee, & Buxton, 2013; Stoddart et al., 2002). August et al. (2014) and Johnson (2011) both showed that ELLs showed increased learning of academic language when using a science curriculum with experiments and materials usually used with gifted and talented students. Technology also can be a powerful tool for language learners accessing STEM content. Ryoo and Bedell (2017) used visualizations in web-based inquiry instruction in middle school science, and Terrazas-Arellanes, Gallard, Strycker, and Walden (2018) showed that interactive online learning units helped close gaps in science knowledge between English-learner and English- only middle school students. Alegria (2014) took a critical pedagogy approach to support ELLs in the science classroom. Driver and Powell (2017) combined culturally and linguistically responsive instruction with explicit schema instruction to teach elementary ELLs how to solve mathematics word problems. Students in the intervention increased word problem-solving skills and reported satisfaction with the intervention.

Many other research-supported instructional practices which support ELLs also benefit English- proficient students (Hoffman & Zollman, 2016). Using visual aids such as pictures, graphic organizers, and sentence frames supports content knowledge and academic language development (Llosa et al., 2016; August et al., 2014; Silverman & Hines, 2009; National Academies ot Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2017). Providing multimedia and hands-on classroom opportunities and expressing concepts in multiple ways are positively associated with ELL learning (Hoffman & Zollman, 2016) but are also recommended practices for mainstream classrooms regardless of students’ language proficiency. Peer collaboration and interaction opportunities in both first language and target language are also positively associated with increased student learning (August et al.,2014; Echevarria et al.,2012). The importance of peer interaction and the advantages of first language support bear mentioning in particular because of educators’ common misconception that students should always use English rather than incorporate first-language knowledge and check comprehension using students’strengths in other languages (August, 2018).

Promising strategies include explicit literacy instruction and matching linguistic features of the domain and the assessment to measure achievement (Avenia-Tapper & Llosa, 2015; Hussain, 2017). ELLs perform significantly higher on linguistically modified items (Sato, Rabinowitz, Gallagher, & Huang, 2010). In assessing learning through tasks that involve student language production (such as written or oral performance), educators must focus on students’ STEM reasoning processes rather than language errors (Moschkovich, 2012). Improving classroom-based and school- and state-level assessments ot English learners’ STEM content knowledge is a key research opportunity. The following section discusses assessment in greater detail.

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