Education Needs to Revamp How to Teach English Learners in STEM

English language learners are underrepresented in STEM fields, in both college and on the job. To understand how education can better work with these students (who could speak one of 350 different languages in the United States) is the topic of a new report from the National Academy of Sciences. "English Learners in STEM Subjects" has three broad sections: a background on English learners, effective strategies for preparing teachers to work with English learners in STEM subjects and how to transform STEM learning itself for the students.

As the report noted, some schools run "under the incorrect assumption" that English proficiency is required for STEM learning. "Alternate routes" to learning — experimentation, demonstration and science practice — can allow students to "gain a sense" of STEM content without depending on language skills. Those same activities also encourage ELs to learn English in context. The committee behind the report identified numerous instructional practices that can help ELs build their content knowledge, gain access to STEM practices and develop their language proficiency; the biggest obstacle is the teachers themselves, who aren't "adequately prepared" to provide the kinds of learning opportunities these students need.

The report offered seven recommendations:

  • First, policies need some adjustment. At the federal level, agencies need to look at the funding they allocate to research and development that could help EL STEM learning; states and districts should examine how they define an English learner in ways that hold the students back, such as assuming that they need to be placed in remedial courses; and schools need to prepare their STEM teachers with collaborative and professional development to work with this population;
  • State, district and school leaders need to set high levels of expectations for these students and "continuously evaluate, monitor and refine policies" to make sure that the learning outcomes are comparable to non-EL peers;
  • Teachers and teacher candidates need the training and tools to help them understand how to "engage and positively position" ELs in STEM learning;
  • STEM courses and curriculum need to include plenty of formative assessments to assess the EL student's progress;
  • EL families need to be brought into the effort so they understand STEM-related educational and job opportunities and can be encouraged to participate themselves in STEM learning activities;
  • STEM assessments need to be redesigned to "better reflect the heterogeneity of EL populations" and ensure inclusion of statistically valid samples of ELs in the process of test development; and
  • States, districts and schools need to review their policies about the use of accommodations during assessments to give English learners access to the ones that "best meet their needs" during instruction and testing; at the same time, these same entities need to develop assessments that use universal design principles from the beginning.

The report also included a suggestion that while STEM and language learning can be achieved in various ways, it's best facilitated when teachers of STEM content "work in concert" with English-as-a-second-language teachers who recognize the functional use of language in STEM instruction.

The report is available for download in multiple formats, including as a free PDF, on the NAP website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.