The imperative that all students, including English learners (ELs), achieve high academic standards and have opportunities to participate in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) learning has become even more urgent and complex given shifts in science and math standards. As a group, these students are underrepresented in STEM fields in college and in the workforce at a time when the demand for workers and professionals in STEM fields is unmet and increasing. Jobs in STEM have outpaced all other fields since 1990 (Pew Research Center, 2018), and although the number of underrepresented minorities in STEM fields has also increased over this period, they still represent a diminishing proportion of the STEM workforce. According to Funk and Parker (Pew Research Center, 2018), Hispanics comprise 16 percent of the U.S. workforce, but only 7 percent of the STEM workforce. These data do not speak directly to the underrepresentation of ELs in STEM fields because EL status during K–12 schooling cannot be inferred from ethnicity, and because ELs come from many ethnic segments of society. Nonetheless, reduced participation and success in STEM coursework in high school and college among ELs lend support to such an inference based on workforce participation data. At the same time, jobs in STEM fields have higher earning potential than non-STEM jobs. Opening avenues to success in STEM for the nation’s ELs offers a path to improved earning potential, income security, and economic opportunity for these students and their families. At least as important, increasing the diversity of the STEM workforce confers benefits to society as a whole, not simply due to the improved economic circumstances for a substantial segment of society, but also because diversity
in the STEM workforce will bring new ideas and new solutions to STEM challenges. Organizing schools and preparing teachers so that all students can reach their full potential in STEM has the potential to transform the lives of individual students, as well as the lives of the teachers, the schools, and society as a whole.
The term EL used throughout the report is consistent with the federal definition:1 a student who is ages 3 through 21, enrolled in an elementary or secondary school, not born in the United States or whose native language is a language other than English, and whose proficiency in speaking, reading, writing, or understanding the English language may be sufficient to deny the individual the ability to successfully achieve in classrooms where the language of instruction is English. These students are instructed under a variety of different program models (including English as a second language [ESL] approaches as well as bilingual approaches) intended to support both language and content learning (U.S. Department of Education, 2012).
Supporting ELs to develop disciplinary content and language simultaneously has been a focus of educational policies throughout this century (e.g., the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Bilingual Education Act enacted in 1968, the Equal Educational Opportunity Act of 1974, and the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002). This evolution in federal policy reflects modern understandings of the intricate interplay between language and content, specifically the fundamental role that language plays in academic proficiency, and the reciprocal role that content learning plays in language development (Lee, 2018). Language and content are learned in tandem, not separately or sequentially. At its core, this realization makes clear that language proficiency is not a prerequisite for content instruction, but an outcome of effective content instruction. Moreover, the direction of this relationship (i.e., that language proficiency standards align to content standards and not the other way around) suggests that the language to be learned needs to focus on the important STEM content and what is known about how children learn STEM content. As content standards are continuously evolving, English language proficiency (ELP) standards must also change and evolve (Lee, 2018).
The National Science Foundation requested the Board on Science Education of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to examine the state of the research on ELs’ learning, teaching, and assessment in STEM subjects, including the role of language in learning STEM, with respect to ELs in PreK–12.
1 According to Section 9101(25) of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965.
College- and career-ready standards present both opportunities and challenges for ELs, necessitating that educators at multiple levels of the education system develop new areas of expertise. Historically, within the classroom, STEM content learning has been considered the province of STEM content educators, while language learning has been considered the province of language educators. Current understanding of the co-development of language and content necessitates that educators of STEM content are familiar with the nature of language, language learning, and exemplary STEM instruction that includes attention to language. To achieve this objective, educators of STEM content must learn to interrogate their preconceived notions and tacit assumptions about language, starting with the most fundamental, though rarely discussed, question, “What is language?” In the same way, language educators will need to become familiar with the nature of STEM content areas. To use science as an example, language educators should ask the question, “What is science?” They will need to understand how STEM subjects are conceptualized in modern standards, such as how science is conceptualized in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS Lead States, 2013), as these standards reflect the field’s most current conceptualization. In the case of mathematics, language educators and math educators who work with ELs will need to know how research has answered the questions, “What is mathematics proficiency? How do students learn mathematics through using language?”
Appreciation of the role of language in content learning has developed over time with historical roots dating back to the last quarter of the previous century. To understand current research and practice in STEM teaching and in the education of ELs requires working knowledge of some of the more salient elements of that history. In this section, we provide a brief overview of the historical developments behind current thinking about the intersection of language development, STEM learning, and STEM education of ELs. This overview is not exhaustive, but provides an essential, albeit brief, historical context for the current charge and report.
Research on Language Among English Learners
As ELs increased in numbers and became a focus of attention in K–12 classrooms, the first response was to prepare ESL teachers who would teach English to ELs in separate classrooms and then send them to “content” classrooms once they had developed sufficient proficiency. An early response of the field of TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages) to the challenge of ELs keeping up with grade-level learning
in K–12 contexts was the emergence of “content-based language teaching” (Mohan, 1986; Short, 1993; Snow, Met, and Genesee, 1989). This approach recognized that children best learn language if it is taught in meaningful contexts of use, and that for children in school, the meaningful contexts are the subject areas. This idea was further supported by the work of Cummins (1981); in particular, he made a distinction between informal conversational language and more formal academic language in his research on children developing bilingual competence at school. This distinction generated controversy from the beginning (see Cummins, 2000, for discussion), but has nonetheless proved valuable in drawing attention to the many ways that individuals use and understand language in education, as well as more generally. Nevertheless, as “content-based language teaching” developed, it was unclear how the relationship between “content learning” and “language learning” was to be articulated.
During the same time period, research was increasingly pointing to the need for explicit attention to language itself as part of the second-language learning process in school contexts, as exposure to the language alone did not lead to development of proficiency (see Lightbown and Spada, 2013; Spada and Tomita, 2010, for reviews). Whereas initially this research primarily studied the ways teachers helped ELs use English with greater accuracy by providing feedback on errors, subsequently the main focus of research on English development has changed in recognition that learners inevitably make errors as they expand their meaning-making repertoires (Valdés, 2005).
One issue in research on ELs is the use of the construct academic language.2 Introduced by Cummins through his notion of CALP (cognitive academic language proficiency), this term has been widely employed since the 1980s to describe the language children are exposed to and that they may need to develop to succeed in schools. The term has been critiqued as presenting a “symbolic language border” (Valdés, 2016, p. 330) that can be detrimental if ELs are seen to bring only limited language resources to STEM education, but we use it in this report to describe the range of registers used in STEM learning. Register refers to the variation in language choices that people make in engaging in a range of activities throughout the day. Chapter 3 develops this definition, illustrating how the content to be learned, the kinds of interactions students are expected to engage in, and the linguistic and nonlinguistic modalities they use for meaning-making shape the language choices they make. Understanding academic language as part of a set of registers positions it as more than just disciplinary vocabulary that can tend to be the focus, and enables the recognition of
and research on sentence and discourse dimensions of language that make broader and often discipline-specific demands on students in the classroom (e.g., Bailey, 2010; Bailey et al., 2007; Bunch, 2014; Chamot and O’Malley, 1994; Gibbons, 2002; Schleppegrell, 2004, 2007; Zwiers, 2007).
Mathematics Learning with English Learners
Research on mathematics learning with ELs over the past 30 to 40 years shows movement toward new ways of conceptualizing the meaning of “mathematics language,” the definitions of mathematics activity, and a focus on resources rather than obstacles. Early studies of bilingual mathematics learners failed to include bilingualism as a resource, framing the “problem” as one entirely owing to linguistic challenges: solving word problems, understanding individual vocabulary terms, or translating from English to mathematics symbols (Cocking and Mestre, 1988; Cuevas, 1984; Spanos and Crandall, 1990). Later studies developed a broader view of mathematics activity, examining not only responses to arithmetic computation, reasoning, and problem solving, but also the strategies children used to solve arithmetic word problems (Secada, 1991), and student conceptions of two-digit quantities (Fuson et al., 1997).
Since these early studies focused on carrying out arithmetic computation and solving word problems, conclusions were limited to these two mathematics topics. It was not possible to generalize from studies on arithmetic computation and algebra word problems to other topics in mathematics, such as geometry, measurement, probability, or proportional reasoning. Following the failure of an emphasis on only procedural skills, research has focused on approaches that include the other strands of mathematics proficiency, especially conceptual understanding and reasoning, as well as mathematics discourse (Cobb, Wood, and Yackel, 1993; Forman, 1996; Lampert, 1990; Moschkovich, 2007) (see Chapter 3). Additional research has begun to explore how students use and connect their linguistic and cultural resources to the learning of mathematics (Barajas-López and Aguirre, 2015; Domínguez, 2011).
Science Learning with English Learners
The general direction of early research on science learning with ELs did not attend to the practical need for all students to meet the full range of science standards or abilities while also developing English proficiency. In the 1990s, studies of disciplinary practices in science education emerged from the scholarship of science studies—the empirical study of science communities. Sociology and anthropology of science identified the important ways that science is constructed through discourse and social practices (Kelly and
Chen, 1999; Latour, 1987; McGinn and Roth, 1999). Much of the early literature on effective science instruction with ELs focused on engaging ELs in hands-on activities to make science concrete and experiential while reducing language load. In addition, discrete science process skills (e.g., hypothesizing, observing, inferring, predicting) were perceived as compatible with language functions (e.g., describing, summarizing, reporting). Focusing on the social and discourse practices of science education began to situate instances of talk and action around meaning-making in ongoing social and cultural practices of the specified classroom, laboratory group, museum, or other educational setting.
Lemke’s Talking Science (1990) was a seminal work in science education. This study of primarily teacher-led discourse practices identified the important ways that the thematic content of scientific knowledge was instantiated in secondary science classrooms. Through detailed linguistic analysis of discourse processes, Lemke identified the many ways that science can be obscure, difficult, and alienating to students. This study opened up the field to take a closer look at the various discourse processes and practices of science.
Studies of discourse in science education have identified ways that student interests, narratives, and personal and cultural worlds contribute to how they are positioned and how they come to see themselves as science learners (Brown, 2006; Varelas et al., 2008; Varelas, Kane, and Wylie, 2012). Given the variation in students’ home culture and language practices, educators have sought to understand how students’ cultural knowledge, affiliations, and identities are constructed within the context of science learning (Bang, 2015; Bang et al., 2013; Hudicourt-Barnes, 2003; Warren et al., 2001).
The Board on Science Education of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, in collaboration with the Board on Children, Youth, and Families, convened an expert committee to synthesize the existing evidence base on supporting EL students in STEM subjects from PreK–12 and provide guidance on how to improve learning outcomes in STEM for these students (see Box 1-1). The study explored both the research evidence and successful programs/interventions to identify promising practices for supporting ELs in STEM. It considered the needs of STEM teachers with respect to instruction and issues related to the valid and reliable assessment of ELs.
The committee met five times over an 11-month period in 2017 and 2018 to gather information and explore the range of issues associated with ELs and their STEM learning opportunities. During this time, the committee reviewed the published literature pertaining to its charge and had opportunities to engage with many experts. Additionally, the committee commissioned five papers during the information-gathering phase of the process.
The committee spent a great deal of time discussing the charge and the best ways to respond to it. Evidence was gathered from presentations and a review of the existing literature over the past 10 to 15 years (see Box 1-2
for the National Academies reports related to this topic). The committee searched for information on ELs’ learning outcomes associated with different policies at the state and district levels, program models, instructional strategies employed across the various STEM content areas, and the professional development of teachers. The committee also reviewed the literature on assessment, including formative and summative assessment. For each of these areas, careful consideration was given to the strength of the evidence (described below) as well as across the various grade bands. During the review, it was clear that there is an imbalance in the research for different disciplinary content areas. That is, there is more information for science and mathematics with relatively sparse information available for technology and engineering. Therefore, the committee acknowledges that science and mathematics are necessarily overrepresented throughout the report.
As the committee reviewed the evidence on teachers, it was clear that a closer look at classroom factors was important, including teachers’ perceptions and knowledge of ELs’ abilities and of their families. As such, the committee also reviewed literature on school, family, and community interactions as related to STEM broadly and specific to ELs. When examining the outcomes specific to ELs and the various subpopulations (described below) in STEM learning, the committee recognized that there are limitations in the literature as to how ELs are characterized. Whereas some studies noted the different subpopulations included, others did not. Moreover, it was not always clear how reclassified ELs were included in the analyses, if at all. As such, the committee was unable to address fully one of the questions embedded in Question 1 of the charge: “What has worked, for whom, and under which conditions?” The committee synthesized the available evidence and came to consensus on recommendations that we believe should apply to ELs broadly; however, we acknowledge that it is still important to consider the learner and the context of the learning environment. The committee also gave careful consideration to research conducted outside of the United States. Although some literature is included, constraints of time prevented an exhaustive review of literature outside of the United States.
Over the course of this study, members of the committee benefited from discussion and presentations by the many individuals who participated in our three fact-finding meetings. At the first meeting, the committee heard presentations on ways in which to consider progress with respect to reclassification and learning progressions, as well as on new frames for thinking about mathematics and science learning given the Common Core Mathematics and Next Generation Science Standards.
During the second meeting, the presentations centered on the research examining factors associated with equitable educational contexts. In particular, the presentations focused on ELs’ access to STEM courses and course-taking patterns in high school, the preparation of science educators
by describing the Secondary Science Teaching with English Language and Literacy Acquisition (SSTELLA) project, and the research on attending to teachers’ views of their ELs’ capabilities through professional learning experiences. Additional presentations looked at state and district policies and the implementation of equitable educational opportunities, such as immigration trends and educational impacts, funding patterns associated with federal accountability, and a district-level perspective on ways to build capacity for teachers to provide rigorous science learning opportunities to their students, including ELs. Also during the second meeting, the committee considered issues centered on technology, computational thinking, and digital media through presentations that discussed technology-based programs designed to improve learning outcomes and broaden participation among ELs while also addressing the limited evidence base on technology and ELs.
Acknowledging that the committee had less expertise in the PreK space, at the third and final fact-finding meeting, the committee was briefed on three areas of emerging research on science education with ELs in PreK to include curricular development, home-to-school connections, and assessment of student science ability.
The committee commissioned five papers to provide more in-depth analysis on key issues.3 Rebecca Callahan (The University of Texas at Austin) authored a paper on K–12 ELs’ science and mathematics education with a focus on curricular equity, including issues centered on access to rigorous STEM learning opportunities. Julie Bianchini (University of California, Santa Barbara) provided a comprehensive overview of teachers’ knowledge and beliefs about ELs and their impact on STEM learning. Through their discussions, the committee recognized the growing role of ESL teachers in the classroom and commissioned Sultan Turkan (Educational Testing Service) to provide an overview of the changing role of ESL teachers in K–12, the nature of collaboration with science and mathematics content teachers, and the preparation that is needed. The committee acknowledged some lack in expertise on secondary science education and early mathematics education for ELs; as such, they commissioned papers on these topics from Sara Tolbert (University of Arizona) and Sylvia Celedón-Pattichis (University of New Mexico), respectively.
In reviewing the evidence, many different types of studies were included: qualitative case studies, ethnographic and field studies, interview studies, and a few large-scale studies. The committee recognized that the literature consisted predominantly of studies that were more descriptive in nature with few studies that could describe causal effects (as characterized in the National Research Council [2002b] Scientific Research in Education
report). As appropriate, throughout the report, the evidence is qualified to articulate the type of research being reviewed and its strength. The committee was also careful to qualify and temper the conclusions and subsequent recommendations that could be made based on the type of evidence and its strength.
Defining English Learner Populations and Contexts
As part of the deliberation process, the committee acknowledged that many other terms exist to characterize the population, for example, dual language learners, multi-language learners, and emergent bilinguals (see National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2017). However, as stated at the opening of the chapter, the committee adopted the use of the term “English learner” to define the population—it was described as such in the charge and is consistent with federal definitions. As described in more detail in Chapter 2, the committee examined the literature broadly and considered all program models—those associated with either ESL or bilingual approaches. The report focuses exclusively on the context of learning STEM content and language development, making some generalizations that are unique to this context and transcending the different approaches. When necessary, the report distinguishes between the different program models.
As part of the charge, the committee was asked to consider the disability status of ELs. The Promising Futures report (Chapter 10) provided an in-depth discussion of the impact of disability status for ELs in many areas, including identification, testing and the need for accommodations, and classroom-based interventions. The current committee acknowledged the limited evidence with respect to STEM learning and ELs with disabilities and, when appropriate, discussed issues specific to the charge (see Chapters 7 and 8).
In considering the heterogeneity of ELs, the committee grappled with how to describe the various subpopulations. Of note, the committee recognized that a major segment of the population has been designated by an evolving sequence of labels, such as Hispanic,4 Latino/a,5 Latin@,6 and
4 “Hispanic” has been generally abandoned, in part because of its literal emphasis on the Spanish language and culture, in favor of the more functional pan-ethnic identifier.
5 “Latino/a” is typically used to describe individuals in the United States who are descendants of, or direct immigrants from, Latin America.
6 “Latin@” appears to have been introduced as a typographic contraction of “Latino/a.” It further avoids the preferential ordering, “o” before “a,” or the reverse.
Latinx.7 The committee was faced with the need to make a decision as to how to describe this particular population and the implications our choice might have for individual readers and groups who identify more strongly with one or another label, who may feel disenfranchised by the choice of other labels, as well as for the implications that our choice(s) could have for how to describe the many varied EL subpopulations. However, we could find no such label that serves both to identify the members to the broader society and speaks to the identity of each of the individual members. We were unable to reach a consensus on a single best term to use for this specific subpopulation of the nation’s diverse society. As such, as appropriate, the committee uses the nomenclature from the studies described throughout the report and recognizes that this leads to inconsistencies in reporting.
The committee also examined the evidence related to newcomers—those who come to school without prior knowledge of English (see Chapter 2). The evidence for this particular population is relatively limited. The committee views newcomers as students who can interact with children who speak English and can participate and contribute within authentic STEM learning contexts. Given this, the discussion and recommendations throughout the report apply to all ELs, including newcomers, acknowledging that the opportunities for language development need to be calibrated to their newcomer status.
Another subpopulation of ELs that has received increasing attention are those labeled as long-term ELs (LTELs). LTELs are those who generally have been educated in U.S. schools for 6 years or more and yet have not met reclassification criteria for their state and still receive bilingual education or ESL services (Batalova, Fix, and Murray, 2007; Menken and Kleyn, 2010; Solis and Bunch, 2016). Although the designation of LTELs was intended to draw awareness to a particular group of students to improve educational outcomes, the designation has been associated with a more deficit view of ELs (Kibler, Walqui, and Bunch, 2015; Thompson, 2015). As will be described in Chapter 2, reclassification is a challenging issue and can lead to negative outcomes (Robinson-Cimpian, Thompson, and Umansky, 2016). These outcomes are not only illustrated in measures of academic achievement or attrition for school, but also extend to the perception of how these students are viewed as well as how they view themselves (Flores, Kleyn, and Menken, 2015). It is important to note that even within this designation, there is still variability in language proficiency and STEM-related academic
7 The term “Latinx” was introduced, with the “x” avoiding the inherent binary nature of the a/o form inherent in Spanish. The committee gave significant consideration to using Latinx, but ultimately failed to reach a consensus on adopting this usage throughout the report, perhaps reflecting the lack of consensus within the community of individuals who identify with any of the terms Hispanic, Latino/a, Latin@, and Latinx.
achievement (Thompson, 2015). The issue of classification and reclassification and the implications for placement and achievement in STEM subjects is a major theme discussed throughout the report.
This report presents substantial evidence that with appropriate curricular and instructional support, ELs can participate, contribute, and succeed in STEM classrooms. ELs bring multicompetence to the STEM classroom, with broader aspects of language knowledge and cultural knowledge than monolingual (“monocompetent”) speakers (Cook, 1991, 2003). ELs are actually engaged in a more challenging task than other students, as they are developing bilingual competence at the same time they are learning school subjects, something other students are not expected to do. Their language proficiency in both languages will continue to develop with their exposure to and participation in communicative, meaningful activities, using the language(s) they are developing (Hall, Cheng, and Carlson, 2006). For that reason, in the literature, the label “English learner” is being rejected in favor of referring to these students as emergent bilinguals (Garcia, Kleifgen, and Falchi, 2008). Seeing them as students who are developing a greater capacity for using language is one way of recognizing the strengths they bring and the contributions they can make in STEM classrooms.
In addition, ELs bring new perspectives and resources to the classroom through their participation and sharing of experience that can benefit their peers. In the contexts of STEM classrooms, ELs’ cultural diversity represents opportunities for sharing new ideas and new ways of thinking about STEM (Lee and Fradd, 1998; see Leverage Multiple Meaning-Making Resources in Chapter 4). These contributions have the potential to add new dimensions to the ways STEM topics are addressed through instruction. In addition, students who have had STEM instruction in other countries may also bring important proficiency in content, or may have alternative ways of doing STEM work that other students could learn from (Khisty and Chval, 2002).
This report takes an asset-oriented view of ELs that sees them as competent learners who are doing more than the typical student by developing as bilinguals at the same time they are learning school subjects. It recognizes that ELs, coming from other cultural backgrounds, bring perspectives that can inform and strengthen STEM learning for all (see Chapter 4). The report also views the linguistic knowledge ELs are developing as a set of repertoires (registers; see Chapter 3) that they are learning to draw on, with language as a resource for learning. Language and content are not learned separately, as there is no “content-less” language nor “language-free” content by and large (see Chapter 3). This means that the language
ELs develop will vary with the opportunities they have to participate in STEM learning. We report on research demonstrating that ELs are able to participate in STEM learning even with low English proficiency when they are challenged through instruction that respects them and what they have to offer (see the section on positioning in Chapter 4). Such instruction recognizes that opportunities to build from the language they already speak, and opportunities to draw on their full range of resources for meaning-making (everyday language, gesture, drawing, etc.), are important ways learners draw on their full range of multicompetences (see Wei, 2011).
To leverage the full potential of these opportunities, the committee provides guidance on ways in which to build capacity within the system (Chapter 8). The United Nations Development Programme (2009) defines capacity building as “the process through which individuals, organizations, and societies obtain, strengthen, and maintain the capabilities to set and achieve their own development objectives over time” (p. 5). Central to such capacity building is transformation, or the changing of mindsets and attitudes, which is generated and sustained over time (United Nations Development Programme, 2009). As such, the committee views capacity building as more than the allocation of resources and engagement in improvement efforts; it also requires the questioning of broader policies and practices and concerted efforts to shift them.
This report examines the research on ELs including their heterogeneity and the implications that this heterogeneity has for their learning opportunities in STEM subjects. Chapters 2 and 3 provide the foundation upon which the subsequent chapters build. These chapters provide the guiding framework for the report, the essential background on ELs, the role of language in content learning, and the importance of standards in shaping education; in essence the various premises that the committee understands as given. These chapters provide readers with the background through which the committee understood its charge and reviewed the literature. Chapter 2 describes the heterogeneity among ELs and their educational experiences through different program models that affect ELs’ access to STEM courses. Chapter 3 extends this discussion by articulating the inextricable relationship between language development and STEM learning, describes the vision for STEM classrooms, and discusses the important role of content area standards in education as they relate to this study.
Chapter 4 examines the evidence related to instructional strategies and curriculum, identifying instructional strategies that are most promising. It also considers the teacher as a key player in creating a classroom environment that leverages ELs’ assets by considering the positioning of ELs in the
classroom and how the teacher’s perceptions are influential. Building from what teachers do in the classroom, Chapter 5 explores how teachers and schools can partner with ELs’ families and communities to create a more cohesive approach that optimizes opportunities in STEM, whereas Chapter 6 discusses the necessary preparation that teachers must make when engaging ELs in STEM learning. It describes the themes that are important for ensuring that preservice and in-service teachers are equipped with the requisite skills and knowledge to ensure that ELs receive the rigorous STEM learning opportunities that they deserve.
Chapter 7 discusses assessment, including large-scale assessment, as well as classroom-level formative and summative assessment. The report brings all of the preceding pieces together in Chapter 8, examining the roles of policies and educational systems and describing approaches for designing educational systems that build capacity at local, state, and national levels. Finally, Chapter 9 presents our conclusions and recommendations and identifies key questions warranting future research.
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