A focus on inquiry and supporting English language learners: results from a PD intervention

By Heather King - August 2011


Santau, A.O., Secada, W., Maerten-Rivera, J., Cone, N. & Lee, O. (2010). US Urban elementary teachers’ knowledge and practices in teaching science to English language learners: Results from the first year of a professional development intervention. International Journal of Science Education, 32(15), 2007–2032.  


Teachers of English language learners face the dual challenge of helping students to learn the academic content of science and to acquire English language proficiency. Elementary teachers, meanwhile, face the additional challenge of responding to new teaching requirements outlined within reform initiatives with an often limited understanding of science and its practices. The study reported in this paper sought to examine these issues (and also a comparison of teacher’s knowledge and practice between grade levels) as part of the analysis of a long-term professional development initiative for urban elementary schools. The professional development (PD) sought to enhance teacher knowledge of science content, teaching practices, inquiry processes, and teaching practices in science to support English language development.

This paper, and the PD intervention it describes, is of relevance to informal science practitioners who are engaged in leading PD in three key ways. First, it emphasizes the need for extended teacher development programmes in order to effect sustained change. Second, it underlines the importance of language in science learning and third it highlights the particular concerns faced by English language learners and their teachers.

The PD described in the paper comprised curriculum support including student booklets, teachers’ guides and science supplies, and teacher workshops held through the school year. The materials and workshops addressed concepts of science and significant ideas within the context of science inquiry. Common misconceptions and potential learning difficulties pertaining to aspects of science inquiry were highlighted. To support English language learners, the PD materials introduced strategies to enhance general literacy. These included techniques for enhancing comprehension of science information in expository text, and guidance for writing explanations and conclusions to experiments performed in the class. Teachers were also trained in using realia (real object or events), introducing key vocabulary in the beginning of lessons and encouraging students to practice vocabulary in a variety of contexts and in multiple formats (e.g., introduce, write, repeat, highlight). Discussions relating to linguistic scaffolding for English language learners also focussed on adjusting the language load required for participation (by speaking at a slower rate, enunciating clearly), and reducing difficult language to key vocabulary or using shorter utterances and simplified sentence structures. Teachers were also taught to communicate at or slightly above students’ level of communicative competence to support and stretch their developing abilities.

Following the first year of PD, results based on teacher questionnaires and classroom observations suggest that teaching practice was within the bounds of acceptability but still fell short of that required by reform documents. Further, there appeared to be some contradiction between the self-reports of the teachers and findings from classroom observations. Teachers did not report that they used strategies to support English language learners, but were observed using them in their practice. Conversely, teachers reported that they promoted scientific inquiry, but were observed as seeming to have difficulty to go beyond routine procedures.

While these findings may seem somewhat disappointing, it is important to remember that they emerged following the first year of a 5-year long PD intervention programme. As has been discussed elsewhere in the literature, teachers need first to become aware that problems do exist, and then recognize particular problems in their own teaching and classroom context. They also need time to absorb, try and adopt new approaches. Indeed, the researchers argue that helping teachers become aware of their relative strengths and limitations is an important first step in rectifying deficiencies.

While not providing conclusive evidence for the success of the PD in progress, this paper is arguably of special interest to ISE educators in that it discusses many of the issues underpinning the design of PD and the need for extended programmes. Moreover, it serves as a reminder to all educators of the need to first help English language learners to master English if they are then to comprehend and use the many new terms and concepts required for fluency in science.