Consider how students need to use language in different content areas, such as:

  • reading a chart
  • reading a map
  • explaining how to solve a math problem
  • writing a lab report
  • presenting a history project

Give students lots of practice with those tasks and identify important academic language and vocabulary students may need to know.


Teacher Anne Formato: How vocabulary can get in the way of a solving a word problem
Building ELLs' background knowledge about the 50 states

More Resources

Reading and Understanding Written Math Problems

Reading and Understanding Written Math Problems

A teacher helping a girl with her school work.

This article offers a concise overview of strategies for helping ELLs master written word problems.  The author is a middle school math teacher in a building with a high ELL population.

  Video bonus:  How vocabulary can get in the way of solving a word problem

Word problems in mathematics often pose a challenge because they require that students read and comprehend the text of the problem, identify the question that needs to be answered, and finally create and solve a numerical equation. Many ELLs may have difficulty reading and understanding the written content in a word problem. If a student is learning English as a second language, he might not yet know key terminology needed to solve the equation. In other words, ELLs who have had formal education in their home countries generally do not have mathematical difficulties; hence, their struggles begin when they encounter word problems in a second language that they have not yet mastered (Bernardo, 2005). For this reason it is recommended that students learn key terminology prior to attempting to solve mathematical word problems.

Key Benefits

Once English language learners know the key terminology used in mathematical word problems, it will be easier to learn how to write numerical equations. It is important for teachers to provide ELLs with opportunities to learn and practice key vocabulary words.

While key words are very important, they are only part of the process. Understanding the language in word problems is critical for all students. They need to know the meaning of words. But because words are often used differently and problems are set up differently, there are some cautionary messages. Here is an example of problem that uses "fewer than" to set up a subtraction equation.

Maria has 24 marbles which is 8 fewer than Paolo has. How many marbles does Paolo have? If we were to only focus on using key words, "fewer than" is a signal to pick out the numbers and subtract. The student may immediately make the conclusion that the answer is 16, but that is not what the problem is asking, and the child would be wrong. (The correct answer, by the way, is 32).

What research has found is that if we ask students to only rely on knowing that certain key words signal specific operations, we can actually lead them away from trying to understand the problems. They will tend to look only for those words and whatever numbers are in the problem, even if they are not relevant to the answer. This will not help them be mathematically proficient later, even when they are proficient with English.

Although the finding on key words was done with regular students, the consequences for ELL students of relying on them is the same. They would not be able to solve the problem above. However, if teachers follow the suggested process of reading a problem several times (at lower as well as upper grades) and discussing what it means, students will understand. Another good tool is to teach them to draw or model the problems. To illustrate the problem above, you could state: "Here's Maria's 24." Then, draw 24 units, figures, shapes, etc. to represent 24. "Here's Paolo's; he has more because Maria has fewer than he does". Draw 24 units, figures, shapes, etc. to represent 24 and add 8 more. "So Paolo's has to come to more than 24. How many more? 8. So what is Paolo's total?"

The difference is between knowing the meaning of the words "fewer than" and using "fewer than" as a key to an operation. We want students to know the meaning of the words, but also to see them in the context of the whole problem.

Suggested Activities

Lower Grades

Practice problem solving daily by simply asking more questions. For example:

  • How many students brought their homework today?
  • How many more children brought their homework yesterday?
  • We had 8 markers on the board, but now we only have 3. How many did we take away?
  • How many animals are there in this magazine? How many are mammals? How many are birds? (introduction to fractions and percentages)

Continue to use key terminology daily and put it in context (e.g., less than, more than, difference, times, each, etc.). Show students how easy it might be to misunderstand the problem.

Upper Grades

  • Read word problems slowly and carefully several times so that all students comprehend.
  • If possible, break up the problem into smaller segments.
  • Allow students to act out the word problems to better comprehend what they are being asked to solve.
  • Provide manipulatives to help students visualize the problem.
  • Take field or walking trips to figure out distances, speed, area covered, etc.
  • Ask students to do surveys, interviews, hands-on research in real-world situations to figure out percentages, differences, and higher-order math skills.
  • Allow students to make drawings or diagrams to help them understand problems.

Key terminology

Addition +

Subtraction -

total of
added to

less than
fewer than
take away
more than

Multiplication x

Division ÷

product of

divided by
quotient of
percent (divided by 100)
out of
ratio of

For more ideas that can be used to support math instruction in the ELL classroom, take a look at Math Instruction for English Language Learners and this related resource section.

Hot links

National Center for Research on the Educational Achievement and Teaching of English Language Learners

The National Center for Research on the Educational Achievement and Teaching of English Language Learners (CREATE) is a research program designed to improve educational outcomes for ELLs by using a combination of strategies focused on readers in Grades 4-8 and teacher professional development. The CREATE Web site includes webcast seminars hosted by CREATE researchers, and listings of CREATE conferences and presentations around the country.


TeacherVision: Word Problem Resources for Teachers

TeacherVision offers lessons, printables, and quizzes to support math word problem instruction for grades K-12.


Translating Word Problems

This is a great site for teachers in the elementary levels, as it provides a list of keywords you can teach your ELLs to look for as they read word problems. Also included are useful ideas and tricks to better prepare students to understand written math problems.

Related Video: How vocabulary can get in the way of solving a word problem


Bernardo, A. I., (2005). Language and modeling word problems in mathematics among bilinguals. The Journal of Psychology, 139(5), 413-425.


Brenda Krick-Morales teaches at Reynolds Middle School in Lancaster, PA. She is currently teaching 6th grade communication arts and math. She has worked with ELLs at a beginners level as well as the intermediate level for the past 5 years. Brenda holds teaching certificates from Millersville University, and is currently pursuing a Master's in teaching ESL through the University of Turabo, Puerto Rico.



Preparing an Engaging Social Studies Lesson for English Language Learners

Preparing an Engaging Social Studies Lesson for English Language Learners

This article will describe some strategies for planning social studies lessons with ELLs in mind, with a particular emphasis on building background knowledge.

Video bonus: See Kristina's colleague Amber Prentice discuss considerations for planning a Social Studies lesson for ELLs.

Instruction begins when you, the teacher, learn from the learner; put yourself in his place so that you may understand…what he learns and the way he understands it.

— Soren Kierkegaard

Consider the following scenario:

A fifth-grade teacher was preparing her class to learn about the American Revolution. She enlisted the students' help in acting out the events that led to the Revolution with elaborate props and exercises. When the class ended, the students were told they would read more about the Revolution the following day. As they left the room, an ESL student stopped and asked urgently, "But who won?"

This situation highlights some of the challenges that teachers face when helping English language learners, or ELLs, master social studies content:

  • Background knowledge

    ELLs may not have the same background knowledge that their peers have or that textbook authors take for granted, as explained in this video clip with ELL teacher Amber Prentice.

  • Different perspectives

    ELLs bring their own valuable and important experiences to the classroom. Often those experiences can be connected to the content in meaningful ways; however, if different points of view or ideas aren't expressed or identified, students may miss key concepts and ideas in the lesson.

  • Academic language and vocabulary

    ELLs must learn the academic language and vocabulary needed to comprehend and produce new content — all while learning the new content and concepts at the same time!

For content-area teachers with limited experience working with ELLs, planning a lesson that engages them and helps them learn new material may seem daunting. The good news is that there are a number of ways to engage ELLs with social studies content and draw on their own unique background knowledge and perspectives. This article will describe some strategies for planning social studies lessons with ELLs in mind.

In addition, I recommend taking a look at the following resources:

Note: Lesson Planning to Ensure Optimal Engagement of ELLs (Chapter 2 of Teaching English Language Learners Across the Content Areas), is available online and provides a number of helpful resources, including a checklist for modifying lesson plans for ELLs. In addition, Appendix Two of the book (not available online) provides a lesson modification worksheet.

Lesson Planning Strategies

Identify key concepts necessary for understanding the lesson

When choosing your key concepts, keep in mind the following:

  • Background knowledge

    ELLs with limited or interrupted schooling may not have that same level of knowledge as their peers, especially when it comes to historical or cultural topics. When starting a new lesson, look for references or concepts that may need to be explicitly explained.

  • Language proficiency

    Students may already possess content knowledge that they cannot yet demonstrate in English. Look for opportunities to make associations between students' experiences and new content.

  • Perspective

    Students may have a different perspective on the content than their peers. These differences provide an important opportunity for class discussion and learning as long as they are handled in a sensitive and respectful ways.

In addition, plan to find out what students know about the topic you are teaching before getting started. This will help you fill in gaps and build on prior knowledge. A great tool for this activity is a Circle Map, in which you place the main topic in a small circle and add student ideas in a bigger circle around the topic. You may wish to allow ELLs to use their native language with peers for a quick brainstorm before presenting their ideas to the whole class.

Identify content and language objectives

These objectives are a great way to focus on the most important information and language structures you want your students to master. Content objectives focus on the material while language objectives focus on vocabulary or language structures that students should be able to use throughout the lesson (Haynes and Zacarian, 28).

Think about how you are going to:

  • introduce these concepts using simple language,
  • break the concepts down into the most basic elements,
  • keep the objectives visible to students during the unit (i.e., post them on the board or provide a simple outline to keep in binders).

Identify key vocabulary and academic vocabulary

Identify key terms, words, idioms and phrases — TWIPS, according to Dr. Zacarian (19). Choose the vocabulary that your students need to know in order to support their reading development and content-area learning, in addition to key content vocabulary. Remember to prepare student-friendly definitions for TWIPS ahead of time. It may be helpful to look at other social studies vocabulary lists as well.

In addition:

  • Look for problem areas

    Clarify potential areas of confusion, such as homonyms or words with more than one meaning.

  • Include signal and directional words

    Remember that students may also need explicit instruction in signal or directional words ("because" and "explain"), especially those words that are likely to appear frequently in the content materials or activities.

  • Don't overlook the basic words

    There may be many words used through a lesson that native English-speaking students will understand but that ELLs don't know. Keep an eye out for these words, no matter how basic, and make a list of words that your students have questions about so that you can refer back to it when teaching the lesson in the future.

  • Use visuals and manipulatives when possible

    Having a visual reference for new words is particularly helpful for ELLs.

  • Keep words visible and accessible to students

    Post words on a word wall, or try using a "portable word wall" chart that students can put in their binder. The chart might include categories such as new words, old words, people, everyday words, words to review, etc. (Haynes and Zacarian, 59-60).

  • Remember to include lots of student practice

    For students to really know a word, they must use it — or they will lose it. Use new words in class discussions or outside of class in other contexts if appropriate, such as on field trips. Give the students as many opportunities to use and master the new vocabulary as possible, both in writing and speaking activities. You may find this six-step process for teaching academic vocabulary from Dr. Robert Marzano helpful.

Prepare to preview the text

One strategy is a "chapter walk", where students predict what the chapter will be about based on pictures and highlighted features of the textbook.

An activity like this may take some time at first because it's time-consuming to teach. If you use it with regularity, however, it will become easier and quicker, and students will be able to do this on their own at the beginning of a new chapter.

You can also use the "BIG FOX" strategy, published by McGraw-Hill. This graphic organizer helps students pick out important terms and pieces of information before reading. I recommend practicing this strategy with some simple readings about familiar topics before jumping in with the textbook. The students will understand the strategy better if they start out with concepts that they understand. 

Prepare multimedia, visuals, and related readings

These resources can be used to build background knowledge and provide context for ELLs, especially when students are learning new concepts and words. Ideas include:

  • Using photos from books, magazines, or the Internet to supplement textbooks.
  • Showing brief, focused video clips of history or social studies programs.
  • Listening to a short podcast or radio clip of an interview or speech.
  • Discussing additional readings such as related articles, poems, letters, and graphic novels.

Enlist native language support when possible

These strategies can help students identify content they already know, or master new concepts before transferring those ideas and learning how to express them in English:

  • Collaborate with a bilingual paraprofessional and identify areas where bilingual language support will be most helpful.
  • Look for related content materials in the students' native language from publishers like Scholastic or National Geographic/Cengage.
  • Plan group work in which students can use their native language with peers to discuss main ideas or vocabulary words.

Plan to include group work throughout the unit

Peer learning activities such as Reciprocal Teaching and Think-Pair-Share can be powerful tools for engaging ELLs with content learning.

Use modeling and clear instructions to ensure students understand:

  • how the activity works
  • their role in group work
  • the objective of the activity
  • any key vocabulary or phrases they should be using.

Here are some other tips on group work for ELLs from Haynes and Zacarian:

  • Assign students group roles that match their language ability (37).
  • Promote students to new roles as their language skills improve (42).
  • Make sure that mainstream students understand that they will be working in diverse groups, and that everyone's contributions are important (41).
  • Keep an eye on the balance of student participation; if some students are speaking more than others, ask them to think of some ways to even participation out (42).
  • Ask students to reflect on their group work after they have finished an activity. Haynes and Zacarian include a chart in their book with some guiding statements for student reflection (48).

Plan plenty of opportunities for students to interact with the content

Give students lots of opportunities to engage with and review the material in different ways:

  • Graphic organizers

    Use graphic organizers to review key concepts and vocabulary words.

  • Flash cards

    Have students make their own flash cards with pictures, definitions, key facts, etc.

  • Working with the text

    Teach students to underline, highlight, and make notes. You may also find that sticky notes, Wikki Stix, and highlighting tape are a big hit with students (68). According to Haynes, some school districts order extra textbooks for their ELL classes so that teachers can keep a highlighted copy on hand as a student reference.

  • Use acting

    Have the students write skits about the material they are learning, or create an activity in which students provide a physical representation of a particular event or vocabulary word.

Be creative and flexible with writing assignments

Writing can be an important way for students to show what they've learned:

  • Be creative and flexible

    When choosing writing activities for students, be creative and open to different ways for students to express their new knowledge. I have seen students successfully convey what they learned by writing letters, poems, news articles and mosaics with vocabulary key points. Writing an essay may be more difficult for ELLs, and although they need to learn how to write a good essay eventually, they should be allowed to demonstrate their learning through a variety of writing activities.

  • Look for writing exercises that relate to the topic at hand

    This may include a biography or autobiography, a letter from the point of view of a historical figure, or a short news article about a famous event.

  • Provide models

    Give ELLs explicit structures and sentence frames to follow. Frames may vary in complexity and specificity, but they will help students to model correct structures and usage from the beginning.

Plan to adapt homework and assessment as needed

While it's important to have high expectations of ELLs, it is also important to have realistic expectations of the amount of work they can do. Haynes and Zacarian note, "The teacher's goal should be to making learning accessible and meaningful for every student without lowering expectations or sacrificing rigor" (104-105).

They continue in Chapter 7 of their book to provide a number of helpful rubrics and step-by-step procedures for evaluating your homework and assessment activities with ELLs in mind. In Twenty-Five Quick Tips for Classroom Teachers, Haynes suggests that teachers "adjust homework assignment to your ELLs' English language proficiency (and) modify assessment so that your ELLs have an opportunity to show what they have learned."

As you look for ways to help your students learn this new content, remember that you aren't just teaching them required social studies standards — you are helping your students adjust to a new life and country. That preparation has a potentially significant ripple effect because your students may be helping their own parents navigate this new country as well, and they may need to prepare for a U.S. Citizenship exam one day in the future.

Through social studies lessons, you also can prepare your students to be engaged and well-informed participants in our society and democracy, an opportunity they might not have had in their own country due to their religion, gender, or ethnicity. When you think about it that way, teaching ELLs to master new social studies content is so much more than adapting a lesson plan — it's a chance to prepare a new generation of young people to lead us into the future.

Amber Prentice: How To Build Social Studies Background Knowledge



Haynes, J. "Twenty-Five Quick Tips for Classroom Teachers." Retrieved 2/16/10 from:

Haynes, J. & Zacarian, D. (2010). Teaching English Language Learners Across the Content Areas. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Palincsar, A. S. and A.L. Brown. 1984. "Reciprocal Teaching of Comprehension-Fostering and Monitoring Activities." Cognition and Instruction 1:117-175.


You are welcome to print copies or republish materials for non-commercial use as long as credit is given to Colorín Colorado and the author(s). For commercial use, please contact

Primary Sources, the Library of Congress, and English Learners

Primary Sources, the Library of Congress, and English Learners

Library of Congress

Areli Schermerhorn is an ESL educator in the Syracuse City School District.  In this article written for Colorín Colorado, she shares ideas on how to use primary resources from the Library of Congress archive with English Language Learners (ELLs).

 “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.” – Jorge Luis Borges

Siempre imaginé que el Paraíso sería algún tipo de biblioteca. – Jorge Luis Borges

When I received the invitation to apply to the Library of Congress Summer Institute, I must admit that I was a little intimidated by the proposition.  In my mind, the Library of Congress was a place for university graduate students, lawyers, judges, and others interested in extensive, scholarly research. How could time-strapped teachers utilize such a massive collection of information? 

I didn’t have to worry. The experience at the Library of Congress Summer Institute showed me how.   At the Library of Congress, I found a rich resource to support teaching and learning at all grade and language proficiency levels. During the institute, there was a focus on exploring the role of primary sources in the development of critical and analytical thinking skills – must-haves for our 21st century students.

Primary Resources: FAQs

How do you define primary resources? 

The Library of Congress defines primary sources as the raw materials of history – original documents and objects which were created at the time under study. They are different from secondary sources, accounts or interpretations of events created by someone without firsthand experience.

What makes primary resources so compelling?

Students working with primary sources are actually working with a piece of history.  Primary sources invite learners to generate their own inferences and interpretations. In essence, students become historians-in-training. 

Are there reasons that primary resources are particularly engaging for English learners?

The non-linguistic nature of many primary sources can be very inviting to English learners. Students can examine paintings, prints, photographs, music, maps, films and other rich historical artifacts. These artifacts can help students access their prior knowledge and/or build background knowledge of the content being taught in the classroom. 

The LOC has a primary source analysis tool that allows students at different levels of language proficiency to interact with the primary source.   Students can be guided to share their observations, reflections and questions. Beginning level students can work with partners, use a word bank, or use bilingual dictionaries to participate in the analysis.  Teachers can offer question starters and sentence frames to assist students with the discussion.

What is the role of primary resources in the Common Core?

The major shifts of the Common Core State Standards highlight the need for students to practice with complex texts and academic language, to use text-based evidence to support claims, and to build knowledge through non-fictional resources. Primary sources are non-fictional resources that can be employed during instruction to support the standards.  Additionally, the Common Core Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects  specifically require that students interact with primary sources for a variety of purposes.

Is there guidance on using the LOC sources along with the Common Core?

The Classroom Materials section gives teachers the option of searching for materials by standards – Common Core, State Content, or Organizations.

Library of Congress: Classroom Resources

What kinds of primary resources are available through the LOC? 

The website for the Library of Congress has collection highlights that include prints & photographs, performing arts, film, historical newspapers, veteran history, American memory, sound recordings manuscripts, and maps.  Teachers may want to start by clicking on the Especially for "Teachers" link just below the collections, and then click on Classroom Materials on the side bar.  The LOC offers teachers Primary Source Sets, Lesson Plans, Presentations and Activities, Themed Resources, and Collections Connections. There is also an "Ask a Librarian"  option on the main site that allows teachers to communicate with the LOC via e-mail.

How can teachers around the country access these materials?

The materials can be accessed through the website. For example, the primary source sets can be viewed as PDFs and downloaded for classroom use.  

Is there a cost or registration required?

There is no registration required and the materials are free for classroom use.

Ideas for ELLs

What are some ideas and activities for using these resources with and engaging ELLs?

According to the Center for Applied Linguistics, English learners benefit from lessons that focus on vocabulary development, access background knowledge, increase comprehensible input, increase social interactions, and increase higher-order thinking. Primary sources can assist teachers in achieving these objectives. Students can develop content vocabulary by engaging in academic discourse about primary source documents. Teachers can use visual thinking strategies to model the observation process.  Students can then work collaboratively to discuss inferences and formulate questions.

Recommended Resources

The following webinar on is availabke on ShareMyLesson:

English Learners, the Common Core, and Primary Sources

Photo Credit: George Crofutt, 1873. Available on the Library of Congress website:


You are welcome to print copies or republish materials for non-commercial use as long as credit is given to Colorín Colorado and the author(s). For commercial use, please contact

Opportunities and Challenges for ELLs in the Science Inquiry Classroom (Part 1)

Opportunities and Challenges for ELLs in the Science Inquiry Classroom (Part 1)

Professional Books: Science Instruction for ELLs

Good science starts with a question. Using inquiry science, children discover answers to their questions in the same way that scientists do — with experiments, predictions, observations, and conjectures.

In this excerpt from Chapter 4 of Becoming Scientists: Inquiry-Based Teaching in Diverse Classrooms, Grades 3-5, Rusty Bresser and Sharon Fargason describe some of the opportunities and challenges that ELLs may face in an inquiry classroom and offer guidelines for identifying important academic language features in a lesson. The approaches described are designed to engage students in the practices outlined in the .


Many factors contribute to a classroom's diversity. These include race, culture, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, learning styles, varied experiences and background knowledge, support from home, skill level, readiness, behavior, and students' proficiency level in English. Because they are among the fastest-growing demographic group of students in the United States, teaching English language learners (ELLs) has become a big challenge for teachers as they try to find ways to make content comprehensible and help students use English to communicate their understanding of the core content areas of mathematics, social studies, and science.

Just as diversity comes in many different forms in the classroom, English learners as a group are diverse as well. ELLs vary widely by level of schooling, parents' level of education, parents' proficiency in English, proficiency and literacy in their native language, and proficiency in English. Some English learners have had limited access to education, and some have experienced war firsthand or lived in refugee camps. Most ELLs are born in the United States, but the level of English spoken in their homes varies considerably (Wright 2010).

The students in Sharon's class are mostly English learners, but they are different from one another in many ways. For example, Diana is a student from Burma who is at the beginning level of English proficiency according to California's English Language Development Test (CELDT). She has had limited access to public education in her home country and struggles with academic content.

Rafael was born in the United States, but his parents do not speak English. Although he is making good progress in school, his proficiency in English is at an intermediate level. Carlos is a gifted student whose English skills are advanced. His parents are bilingual and speak to him in both English and Spanish at home. These three students are examples of the range of experiences, backgrounds, and levels of proficiency that Sharon must consider when she plans and teaches her science lessons.

Challenges Language Learners Face During Inquiry Science

When engaged in inquiry science, children must use language to make a prediction or a hypothesis. They use language when talking to a friend about how they'll set up an experiment. And they use language when they are reading about batteries, reflecting on the outcome of an investigation, writing about the conclusions they draw, or pondering new questions they have.

Language can be a powerful learning tool during inquiry, promoting the understanding of science concepts (Rosebery, Warren, and Conant 1992). But when the language of instruction is unfamiliar to a student, English language learners can experience challenges that may create roadblocks to learning. These challenges are reflected in their scores on science achievement tests, which are well below that of their native English-speaking counterparts (Next Generation Science Standards Writing Team 2012).

English language learners face a triple challenge during science instruction. They must learn everyday vocabulary, content-specific vocabulary, and the language structures that are used when engaged in inquiry, such as formulating hypotheses, drawing conclusions, making inferences, and asking questions.

The language of science can be confusing for English language learners because it uses many words from everyday life that have different meanings. For example, students may know that they eat off of a plate, but in science, plate tectonics has quite a different meaning. The same is true of the words cell (as in cell phone), tissue (something to use when you sneeze), and organ (an instrument). All of these words have meanings in everyday life that are different from the way they are used in science (Wright 2010).

To create an equitable learning environment for English language learners during inquiry, teachers must be aware of their students' proficiency levels in English and determine the language demands of science lessons to plan for appropriate support during instruction. English language learners are entitled to high-quality language and content instruction so that they can use English to learn science and use science as a context for learning English. When we teach science, we are also teaching English, not just teaching in English.

Determining the Academic Language Demands of a Science Lesson

When planning a science lesson, Sharon analyzes the language that students will be reading, writing, listening to, and having to produce. If students have to read from their science textbook or a piece of nonfiction, Sharon reads the text ahead of time, looking for any text features that might pose problems for her English learners. She asks herself many questions as she thinks about the language demands of the reading:

  • Are there tricky definitions that might need to be discussed or recast in more accessible ways?
  • Are there grammatical forms that might be challenging to readers, such as the conditional tense: What might happen if an earthquake occurs in a large city?
  • Are there long, complex sentences that might need to be broken down into shorter sentences for the students?
  • Are there idiomatic phrases that may be unfamiliar? Are there captions in the text that students might need to pay particular attention to?
  • Are there transition words used (unless, although, finally, because, consequently, therefore), and will students need to learn what they indicate (Cloud, Genesee, and Hamayan 2009)?

Sharon also thinks about key vocabulary that her students might need to understand and use during inquiry. For example, when planning a unit on energy, Sharon determines what:

  • everyday words students will need to know and use (such as rubber band, wire, flashlight, Styrofoam, paper, battery)
  • content-specific vocabulary they will need to learn (such as electricity, conductor, energy, insulator).

As she thinks about when and how she will teach the terms, Sharon draws from a variety of strategies that make the vocabulary accessible and easier to learn. These include:

  • making use of realia or concrete materials to demonstrate usage (for example, using a real flashlight when introducing the word)
  • creating an illustrated vocabulary chart to help students visualize the words
  • using familiar synonyms for academic terms (for example, see-through for transparent)
  • making students aware of cognates, which are words in English that sound similar in a student's native language (for example, the word atomos is Spanish for atoms).

In addition to using these strategies to explicitly teach vocabulary, Sharon models using the words in context and has her students repeat them for practice.

The academic language that students must learn and use during inquiry science is not restricted to vocabulary. Students must also use the vocabulary in complete sentences to say something about their learning. So if a student is learning about minerals and wants to compare two different ones, she will need to know some describing words (black, white, rough, smooth) and be able to use them to compare the minerals (mineral A is white and smooth, whereas mineral B is black and rough).

In other words, the student is using the vocabulary for a purpose: to compare minerals. In science, students use language during inquiry for a variety of purposes: to describe, compare, hypothesize, predict, sequence, categorize or classify, explain, analyze, draw conclusions, ask and answer questions, estimate, persuade, and identify. Whenever we ask children to read something, say something, write something, or listen to our directions or a procedure during inquiry science, we are placing a language demand on them for which they may need extra support, depending upon their level of proficiency in English.

Setting Content and Language Objectives

When planning a science lesson, Sharon thinks about content and language as interconnected, because we use language to learn about science concepts, and we use science contexts to develop language. "Just as language (development) cannot occur if we only focus on subject matter, content knowledge cannot grow if we only focus on learning the English language" (Hill and Flynn 2006, 22).

When students use communication to make sense of the world, and when they talk or write about their learning, it gives the teacher a window into their thinking. Are their ideas correct? Do they hold naïve conceptions about a concept? Do their ideas hold merit? Language is an important learning tool and a key assessment tool. When Sharon thinks about the science content she will teach, she considers the language that students will use to show that they have learned the content. To help her provide the right support for students, she first sets a science-content objective (guided by the overall science standard or goal for the lesson), and then she thinks of a language objective that supports the content objective.

Example: Energy lesson

For example, for one of the lessons in a unit on energy, Sharon knew that students would be learning about different sources of energy (the science-content objective). She also knew that students would be thinking about, talking about, and then writing about what they think energy is. Because Sharon knew that her students would need to describe where energy comes from and what it is, she set a language objective: "Students will orally and in writing describe energy and where it comes from."

Setting a language objective focuses Sharon's attention on the purpose for using language in a lesson (in this case, the purpose was describing). Setting a language objective also guides Sharon when she thinks about the support students will need when using language. In the lesson on energy, Sharon offered her students a simple writing prompt—Energy is …—to help them get started on their writing. The idea for the prompt flowed directly from the language objective.

Example: Pendulum lesson

In another lesson, on pendulums, Sharon's content objective was "Students will conduct multiple trials to test a prediction in a pendulum experiment." Her language objective, which supported the content objective, was "Students will make predictions about the pendulums orally and in writing." Writing a language objective helped Sharon focus on the purpose for using language in the lesson (making predictions), thereby helping her plan for linguistic support.

Example: Mineral lesson

For a lesson on minerals, Sharon had to teach the following big idea or science standard over the course of a week: "Students know how to compare the physical properties of different kinds of rocks and know that a rock is composed of different combinations of minerals." The lesson she was going to teach that day from the rocks and minerals unit engaged students in performing tests.

Sharon's content objective was "Students will perform a variety of tests to learn about the properties of minerals." Her language objective, which supported the content objective, was "Students will use key vocabulary to describe and compare the properties of minerals orally and in writing." The language objective for the lesson helped Sharon focus on what she wanted students to talk and write about during the lesson so that they would meet the content objective. It also helped guide her in creating the support students would need to describe and compare the minerals.

Native English speakers are able to perform the language functions of describing, predicting, and comparing when prompted with questions such as, Can you describe what energy is and where it comes from? What do you predict will happen when you perform the experiment with the pendulum? How does mineral A compare with mineral B? English language learners may understand the content of the lesson, but their inexperience with the language can keep them from articulating what they know.

It is also possible that their struggles with the language of instruction lead them to partial or inaccurate understandings of the content. Until they verbalize their understandings, what they have learned or not learned remains a mystery to the teacher and may even be unclear to the students themselves. Choosing a language objective or language function that matches the science-content objective makes the learning more observable to the teacher and the student (Bresser, Melanese, and Sphar 2009).

Setting a content objective helps the teacher think about the science content she needs to focus on. Setting an accompanying language objective serves to highlight the language students will use during the lesson to indicate whether they are learning the science. Setting a language objective also guides the teacher in planning strategies that will support students when they communicate during inquiry.

This article continues in Part 2, Communication and Language Strategies for the Science Inquiry Classroom.


Bresser, R. and Fargason, S. (2013)."Supporting English Language Learners in the Diverse Classroom." Becoming Scientists: Inquiry-Based Teaching in Diverse Classrooms, Grades 3-5. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers. Pgs. 61-74. Reprinted with permission.


Bresser, Rusty, Melanese, Kathy, and Sphar, Christine. 2009. Supporting English Language Learners in Math Class. Sausalito, CA: Math Solutions.

Cloud, Nancy, Genesee, Fred, and Hamayan, Else. 2009. Literacy Instruction for English Language Learners: A Teacher's Guide to Research-Based Practices. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Delpit, Lisa. 1999. Other People's Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom. New York: The New Press.

Hill, Jane, and Flynn, Kathleen M. 2006. Classroom Instruction That Works with English Language Learners. Alexandria, VA: Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Next Generation Science Standards Writing Team. 2012. Next Generation Science Standards. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Rosebery, Ann S., Warren, Beth, and Conant, Faith R. 1992. "Appropriating Scientific Discourse: Findings from Language Minority Classrooms." Journal of Research in Science Teaching 33: 569-600.

Wright, Wayne E. 2010. Foundations for Teaching English Language Learners: Research, Theory, Policy, and Practice. Philadelphia: Caslon.


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