4 Key Factors for Laying a Foundation for Rich Science Inquiry with Young Multilingual Learners
Luis, a multilingual learner who speaks Spanish at home, sits at the back of his first-grade classroom and watches his monolingual classmates talk excitedly about the worms they observed the day before. The worms had wiggled, stretched, and almost escaped! Ms. X, Luis’s teacher, indicates some sentence starters on the board with a wave of her arm and tells students to copy them on their papers. Luis carefully copies the emergency exit chart that is posted next to the sentence starters. When the teacher sees what he’s written, she smiles and says, “Luis doesn’t know English yet, but he’s a smart boy! He’ll get the hang of it!”
Unfortunately, without substantial support, Luis won’t get the hang of it. A lack of intentional and targeted attention to his language needs during science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) lessons is likely to affect not only Luis’s interest and confidence in doing and learning science but the ease with which he learns to read and write in English as well.
As schools continue to reopen for in-person learning, and given the educational inequities uncovered and exacerbated by the pandemic, it’s more important than ever to create early STEM environments that work for and support all children. In our ongoing work with early childhood and elementary educators at Education Development Center in Waltham, Massachusetts, we have identified four fundamental factors that influence the degree to which teachers are able to fuel science inquiry with multilingual learners while simultaneously promoting equitable and inclusive classroom science environments:
1. Commit to Hands-on/Minds-on, Engaging Science
High-quality science instruction introduces children to big science ideas, engages them in actively doing science, and provides a rich context for language development. Here’s what you can do to commit to active, inclusive learning with science:
- Engage children with interesting phenomena that they are motivated to explore and talk about. For example, teach about forces and motion by facilitating ramp explorations using a variety of balls, blocks, and ramps made from easy to find materials like cardboard, cove molding, or pipe insulation.
- Facilitate intentionally sequenced explorations that gradually build understanding and language. For example, you might begin by having children investigate how different balls roll on a variety of flat surfaces; then observe how far balls roll coming off different inclines; and lastly explore how much weight different balls can knock down. Introduce, discuss, and intentionally teach increasingly challenging vocabulary including ball, big and small, heavy and light, far and farther, surface, ramp, incline, and force in context.
- Explain less and listen more. Encourage children to express what they are doing, noticing, and thinking about with questions such as, “What happened when you tried to knock down the cup with these two balls?” and comments such as, “I wonder how the ball will roll if you lift that end up higher.” Break down big questions for multilingual learners while promoting their inquiry at a high level. You might ask, for example, “Which ball knocked down the cup? Was it the heavy ball or the light ball?”
- Provide multiple ways for children to express their observations and thinking, including through demonstration, drawing, and making models using blocks, playdough, and other materials. Closely observe children’s behavior with materials and their artifacts so you can narrate what they are doing, noticing, and wondering about and provide the relevant vocabulary in English.
2. Establish an Inclusive Climate for Science Inquiry
When evaluating your classroom climate for effective STEM teaching and learning with multilingual learners, consider the following reflective questions: How do children and adults interact and communicate with each other during science activities and discussions? Who does the talking and who does the listening? Are all children actively engaged and participating? Here are some ideas for creating and maintaining an inclusive climate:
- Don’t equate what students know or can do in science with what they are able to express in English. Be aware of how you position yourself, how you move about the classroom, and how you interact with students during science activities. Are there any patterns in how individual students’ contributions are requested, recognized, or reinforced? Are you reinforcing the strong message that everyone is a member of the classroom science learning community?
- When prompting engagement, use questions that center on children’s experiences and perspectives rather than suggest correct answers. When introducing a new topic, draw upon children’s prior experience with related phenomena at home and in the community. For example, before a unit on plants you might ask, “Does your family have any plants at home? How does your family take care of them?” Asking families to share their interests or to share photos of plants they have at home before beginning the unit can help you support these conversations in the classroom.
- Use exploration materials, props, and images as cues to language and concepts. For example, when reading a book about planting, have seeds, a cup of dirt, and a mature plant available to preview or to simultaneously demonstrate while reading a story. During science talks, invite children to use these materials to demonstrate what they did and noticed for their peers while you narrate their actions in English.
- Group students intentionally during hands-on explorations so all students have opportunities to build relationships with one another. Periodically group multilingual learners with peers who speak the same home language and have different levels of proficiency in English.
3. Break Down the Silos Between Science, Language, and Literacy
In spite of the research indicating that science and literacy are better together, a whole host of factors can stand in the way of children’s access to more integrated science-language-literacy experiences in classrooms. Here’s what you can do to break down these silos:
- Plan for, introduce, and repeatedly use words that are fundamental to the group’s investigations, that can be used in everyday situations, and that build on children’s current vocabularies. In a worm study, for example, these might be words such as long, soft, head, tail, crawl, wiggle, burrow, or environment, depending on children’s language levels and where you are in the worm study. Send home a list of target words and ask families to use them in the home language with their children in relevant contexts.
- Use images in fiction and nonfiction texts to introduce, discuss, and reinforce topical vocabulary relevant to children’s own investigations. For example, discuss images that show worms’ physical characteristics, what they eat, and how they make their homes in books, such as Wiggling Worms at Work, by Wendy Pfeffer, making comparisons to the real worms that children are observing in a classroom terrarium. Whenever possible, ask an adult who shares a home language of children in the class to preview the book in the home language before reading it to them in English.
- Recruit families or community members to help you learn cognates (words in different languages with a similar root and meaning) in English and children’s home languages. There are many English/Spanish cognates including science/ciencia, observe/observer, characteristic/características, color/color, garden/jardin, and habitat/habitat. Use these to make connections to new vocabulary in English and integrate them into a print-rich environment that includes children’s home languages.
4. Partner with Families
Family support is a key driver of children’s science interests, attitudes, and self-confidence and may even influence their later career choices. You can enrich multilingual learners’ home and school science experiences by making explicit science and language connections and supporting children’s use of their home language. Here’s what you can do:
- Host family exploration events. An in-person event at school during a structures unit might include stations where families and children can build structures together using hard and soft blocks, make and measure paper cup towers, and create structures stories in their home languages using wordless picture books, such as Changes, Changes, by Pat Hutchins. Scheduling this as a drop-in event enables more families to attend. If families can’t make it to the school, consider hosting a virtual event and demonstrating explorations using commonplace household materials—such as building with clean, empty food containers—they might facilitate at home with their children.
- Share at-home tip sheets in children’s home languages to encourage explorations that can be integrated into family routines, such as engaging children in fix-it tasks using simple tools. Make explicit for families how these investigations support children’s science and language learning, especially when they use their preferred home language with their children. Ask families to share photos and short videos of these experiences so that you can use them as a focus for science talks.
- Ensure that communication is flowing both ways and not just from school to home. Conduct family interviews either in-person or virtually to obtain information about children’s day-to-day language environments and parents’ perspectives on their children’s home language development. Inquire about families’ science-related interests, hobbies, or work so you can make curricular connections or plan for in-person or virtual visits during which multilingual learners’ families can share their expertise on specific topics with the whole class.
In our work with teachers, we have found that these four readiness factors are fundamental to high-quality science-teaching for multilingual learners. However, we also know that teachers and professional learning programs do not operate in isolation. They are dependent on the willingness of administrators, schools, and districts to commit to creating the fertile ground in which authentic, inclusive science-teaching practices can take root, grow, and flourish.
Cindy Hoisington is an EC science educator and Project Director at the Education Development Center where she designs and develops STEM professional learning, curriculum, and resources for educators and families aimed at enriching the quality of children’s early science and language experiences with a focus on multilingual learners.
Jessica Mercer Young is a developmental psychologist and Principal Research Scientist at the Education Development Center. A former preschool teacher, Dr. Young is dedicated to providing equitable learning opportunities for all children, particularly those traditionally underrepresented in STEM.
Jeff Winokur works on issues pertaining to early childhood and elementary science professional development in various capacities with teachers, schools, and districts. His recent areas of focus include strategies for promoting talk in science and connecting science and literacy.