Science teachers need to bridge cultural divide

iStock_000006354717XSmallFor English language learners (ELLs) to succeed in science, science teachers need to develop a greater sensitivity for the cultural perspectives they bring to the classroom, says University of Miami researcher Okhee Lee who recently did a survey of educational research studies on science instruction for ELLs for the Review of Educational Research.

Challenging authority not encouraged in some cultures

“There has been little recognition of the linguistic and cultural resources that non-mainstream individuals and groups bring to the science classroom,” the article says, and little recognition of the need to find a bridge between that cultural perspective and the norms and practices of Western science.

In some cultures, challenging authority may not be encouraged and the student could have difficulty with the questioning practices of science, she notes. Not only do teachers need to be aware of their students’ cultural experiences, but these cultural beliefs should be visible to students as well so they can cross cultural borders. One study proposed a framework of “instructional congruence” which highlights “the importance of developing congruence, not only between students’ cultural expectations and norms of classroom interaction but also between students’ linguistic and cultural experiences and the specific demands of particular academic disciplines such as science.”

Several research studies have looked at an inquiry based approach to teaching science or to an approach that switches between English and students’ home language. Teachers can help students engage in scientific inquiry through framing problems, making observations and engaging in discourse practices. In a cognitively based approach, students from different languages mirror the scientific practices of working scientists.

“Science instruction typically has failed to help ELLs learn science in ways that are meaningful and relevant to them, while also failing to help them develop proficiency in oral and written English,” the survey article states.

In a “code switching” approach, bilingual educators can move between languages in science instruction. In one African study, science content was more accessible when teachers incorporated use of local languages rather than adhering to the schools’ English only policy for instruction. The researcher says studies on science instruction with ELLs in the U.S. emphasized hands on, inquiry based instruction, while studies from outside the U.S. focused on “code switching.”

Assessment for ELLs

Science is generally not included in high-stakes assessment; however, that is changing. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 requires science testing beginning 2007. Many states are now moving to add science testing to testing in the core subjects of reading, writing and mathematics.

The policy change raises many complex issues about assessing ELLs, such as which students are to be included in accountability testing, what assessment accommodations are appropriate and how can knowledge of science be assessed separately from English proficiency? One concern is that ELLs’ science achievement is being underestimated when they are not allowed to demonstrate knowledge in their home language. Research on the assessment of ELLs on science is very limited. Some researchers advocate the use of both English and the home language in science assessments.

The survey article includes an appendix summarizing all the articles on science education for ELLs that were reviewed by the author.

“Science Education With English Language Learners: Synthesis and Research Agenda” Review of Educational Research Volume 75, Number 4, Winter 2005 pp. 491 530.

Published in ERN February 2006 Volume 19 Number 2.

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