How to Use Science to Teach ESL Concepts

How to Use Science to Teach ESL Concepts

Susan Verner
by Susan Verner 11,855 views |

What do you get when you combine a child, a disposable plastic cup, some soil and marigold seeds? A child who is as pleased as punch to give his mother a gift full of potential.

Like those seeds, our students are full of potential as well. With the right conditions, instruction, encouragement, dedication and determination, they will bloom even lovelier than the flowers of which they are so proud. We can take a lesson from the connection students make to a project like this one. Whether you are purely an ESL teacher or you teach content areas as well, using science to introduce and refine ESL concepts with your students makes for memorable and effective classes.

The Value of Something Known

  • Regardless your students’ ages, when you teach science content to ESL students it is best to teach scientific content that they already know. Your students can only absorb so much information at one time. If you teach a familiar concept in an unfamiliar language, they can concentrate on the language rather than the content of what they are learning. Their previous scientific knowledge will reinforce their language learning, and they won’t’ have to learn a foreign scientific concept concurrently.

For Elementary Students

  1. It is getting warmer outside, the sun is shining and everyone is thinking about summer vacation. With this season come digging and planting of flowers and vegetables. We look forward to the bounty of our harvest in a few months, but now is the time for work. Planting either flowers or vegetables is a good way to review present and future tenses with your students. As a class, plant individual gardens. It is best if your students can take their seedlings home after they plant them, so plan ahead and save up as many paper egg cartons as students you have. You can give each student either a whole egg carton (twelve spots to plant) or half an egg carton (six spots to plant). Demonstrate for your students how you fill the spots with seed starting soil, dig small holes for the seeds, put the seeds in the holes, cover them with soil again and water them. (Follow the directions on the seed packet if you have never started plants from seed before.) Then leave them by the window to sprout. As you demonstrate planting the seeds, narrate your actions using the present progressive or the simple present. “I am filling the spots with soil. I am digging holes for the seeds. I am planting the seeds. I am covering them with soil.” Allow your students to plant their seeds choosing from a selection you provide. You could also have each student bring in a packet of seeds to share with the class. Lettuce is probably the easiest and most successful plant to grow from seed, but the seeds are very small, so be careful. Put them in pairs while they plant so they can narrate to each other what they are doing practicing using the present progressive tense.
  2. After all the seeds have been planted, give your students some time to imagine what their garden will look like in two months time; then let them draw a picture. You can also provide magazines or seed catalogues for them to cut pictures out of and paste to a garden diagram. Once finished, describe to them what your garden will look like using the future tense. “I will have tall tomato plants. The zucchini will have big yellow flowers. The rabbits will try to eat my lettuce.” Then put your students in pairs again and let them describe their future gardens to one another. Ask for volunteers to share in front of the class. This activity will be memorable for your elementary students, and they won’t’ even realize they are practicing their English in the process. It wouldn’t hurt, either, if they ate a few extra veggies they grew themselves.

For Middle School Students

  • When doing experiments, measurements must be very precise. How can students be precise following directions or giving instruction with measurements if they do not understand the English words for them? They may very well be able to measure out the right ingredients for a reaction if the instructions are given in their native language, but English measurements may raise the difficulty significantly. Use a scientific experiment as an opportunity to review measurement words in English with your middle school studetns. You can teach measurements words for length, weight, mass or volume. There are endless possibilities for measurement in science activities, but one activity they are sure to enjoy is creating mystery canisters. First, ask a local film development center to donate empty film canisters. You will need three canisters for each student. On the day of the experiment, you will also need a variety of small objects students can put inside each of the canisters. Finally, you will need buckets or tubs of water into which the students can put the canisters. Challenge the students to put different items and various amounts of them into each of the three canisters to make one float, one stay suspended in the water (the lid above the water but the rest of the canister under it) and one sink. Once they have done this, they should use scales to measure the weight of each of the canisters. Have students discuss their strategies in groups explaining why they chose the items they did. Did all students use the same strategies? Did they use the same materials and different amounts? Did they use different materials and the same amounts? What items could they put in the canisters that might work better? You can challenge them to take the canisters home and find other items there to achieve the same effects. When they come back to class the next day, measure the weight and check to see how successful this second round of objects was.

For Older Students

  • A very helpful tool for ESL students is understanding word roots. If a nonnative speaker is able to dissect new and unfamiliar English words, she will have a better chance of picking up new vocabulary with ease. Scientific words have many common roots. Take some time during a science lesson to break down some scientific vocabulary into roots and explain their meanings, and review with students how you can use these roots to decipher words. You can teach roots like herb (plant), cide (kill), extro (outside), fract (break) and re (back, again). You should also be able to find lists of other common word roots in some dictionaries or online. Then give them words that use these roots and see if they can determine the meaning. You can give them words like herbicide, exoskeleton and refract. Do some dictionary work, too, by looking up other words that have these roots. Then choose your experiments based on the area of science your chosen words fall into. You can do an experiment with various plants and see how they react to herbicide. You can talk about reflective angles and light refraction. If you have a science teacher at your school, go to her for more ideas about what experiments you can do with your students.

For All Ages

  • Finally, many men and women throughout the ages have contributed to the scientific world. Give your students some reading practice and research experience by having them compile information on a famous scientist and then write or present a report. The experience is even more impactful if students are able to research someone from their home country who has made a significant advancement in science. It may also help your students gain increased respect for each other’s native countries after hearing some of the advancements those nations have made.

The school days we remember most are the ones in which we did out of the ordinary activities. Make a memorable moment for your ESL students by bringing science into their classroom.

It is easy to do and emphasizes the practicality of the language they are studying. It will surely make your class a day to remember.

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