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Overcoming challenges for EAL students during science lessons

English as an Additional Language (EAL) learners who have a strong science background will find science lessons less accessible than other subjects. Students must memorize many new vocabulary words which describe highly specific concepts and navigate complex sentence structures which are necessary to reflect the structure of scientific thought. The use of precise language and conventions to explain key scientific ideas is the first step to accessing essential scientific skills such as visualisation using models, making predictions, interpreting evidence, drawing conclusions, and applying knowledge to new situations. With these difficulties in mind it is not surprising that science teachers around the world are focusing more on language in their lessons. Many of the the difficulties and best practices referenced in this article apply to all students not just those with a specific language need.

In science lessons, students even from an early age will encounter highly specific and technical words. Words like magnesium, photosynthesis, chlorophyl, electrolysis, electromagnetism can be incredibly daunting even in your first language. For EAL students it is useful to know the roots of these words; synthesis means combine together, chlor- means green, and -lys- means break down. Splitting words into categories such as naming words (magnesium, chlorophyl), process words (photosynthesis, electrolysis) and concept words (electromagnetism) can also go a long way to reduce the burden of memorizing them. Another word-related frustration that EAL students have is that many scientific terms have a specific meaning that is different than the common word like work or energy. EAL learners may find these words particularly frustrating because they have already learned them in another context and now they are being asked to use them in a highly specific way. It is now common practice for science teachers to teach the roots of these words, teach students how to categorize words within a personal dictionary, and introduce daily vocabulary-based activities to start their lessons.

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Science textbooks are among the most difficult for students to read and yet they are expected to gain information from reading their textbook or various websites. These texts are often very dense and have the complex sentence structure necessary to express scientific thought. Science teachers incorporate a range of active reading tasks, such as sequencing sentences and modelling the logical transition of ideas (“text cohesion”) using methods like pronoun reference, to improve EAL student literacy. Science teachers often employ two types of activities within their lessons: reconstruction and analysis. Reconstruction activities require students to engage with text that has been changed by a teacher and must be completed. Analysis requires students to categorize the information within a text by marking or labelling. The practice of text analysis is the first step for an EAL student to become an independent, life-long learner.

Practicing science requires EAL learners use precise language and conventions to explain key scientific ideas. Perhaps a science lesson’s most redeeming quality for an EAL student is practical work. Practical work in lesson is a wonderful opportunity to practice language. Students collaborate with their peers by using language to describe what they observed. Although they must eventually use precise the language required, practical work provides a forum for EAL students to explain their observations using the language that they know. It is best practice within a science lesson to provide as many opportunities to go from the concrete to the abstract and to allocate significant time to observe and talk about scientific processes before reading or writing about them. 

As teachers at an international school it is our responsibility to become experts in teaching essential language skills within our own subjects. Part of a teacher’s job is to research these best practices, implement them into their own lessons, and assess whether they are effective for our students. The challenges that EAL students face in the classroom are significant, but in my experience, students are capable of acquiring an impressive amount of language in a short time when given proper guidance and appropriate expectations.

Mr John Kamitsuka

Science teacher 

DfES 2002, Access and engagement in Science.

“Teaching EAL Learners in Science,” The Bell Foundation, accessed March 2021.