Challenges and supports for English learners engaging in STEM practices

By Kerri Wingert - April 2014


Swanson, L. H., Bianchini, J. A., & & Lee, J. S. (2014). Engaging in argument and communicating information: A case study of English language learners and their science teacher in an urban high school. Journal for Research in Science Teaching, 51(1), 31–64. doi:10.1002/tea.21124

Research Design 

In this study, the researchers investigated opportunities and challenges English language learners (ELLs) faced while learning the scientific practices of argumentation and communication of findings (NGSS practices 7 and 8; NGSS Lead States, 2013). Specifically, they asked how the teacher engaged ELLs in argumentation and communication and how the ELLs actually used these practices.

Argumentation and communication of findings are critical for science learning because they are part of how science knowledge is created. The researchers articulated a number of opportunities and challenges faced by non-native English speakers as they learned to engage in these scientific practices in a southern California high school. To reach their conclusions, the researchers analyzed videos of classroom instruction collected over a three-week period, samples of student work, and teacher interviews.

The high school teacher, Ms. H., implemented several design moves that improved her students’ uptake of science practices. She leveraged her students’ first-language skills by encouraging communication in Spanish, even though she was not a native Spanish speaker herself. She used deliberate scaffolds, such as graphic organizers, to support student learning. Finally, she used small groups to facilitate student talk and structured thinking, which assisted in creating a safe space where ELLs could practice science argumentation and communication.

The teacher also encountered a number of challenges in engaging students in the two science practices. The first was imprecision in translating between English and Spanish, which usually resulted in ambiguity regarding students’ understanding and difficulty grading student work. For example, in a unit on sound, the teacher was unable to distinguish whether students understood the difference between sound and pitch because they used only el sonido, meaning sound, in their presentations. Further, the researchers found that ELLs participated less fully in whole-class discussions than did their fluent English-speaking peers.

Theoretical Basis 

This research emerges from the field of research in science teaching that specifically focuses on improvement of instructional practice. The case study methods employed here focus on ways that teachers’ instructional moves facilitate and constrain learning. To learn more about this kind of research, visit the National Association for Research in Science Teaching website or the research brief,"Is learning science like learning a language?”.

Implications for Practice 

The design strategies that gave ELLs opportunities to engage in science practices can be used across formal and informal spaces. Native language support should be included in all learning spaces when possible, but the teacher does not need to speak the students’ language. Native language support can come from peers as well. Students should be able to use organizers and structured talk to facilitate their learning, in general, and their learning of science practices, in particular.

Further, the authors urge designers and instructors to remember that scientific language should be considered a “third language” for ELLs — its vocabulary and norms differ from those of typical informal English communication. For example, argumentation in science differs from the ways in which students argue in everyday life. Furthermore, a student may be able to provide a scientific explanation orally but have difficulty writing it. Thus, the forms of argument and communication that are acceptable in a given discipline must be learned in disciplinary settings, not only in English courses.


NGSS Lead States. (2013). Next Generation Science Standards: For states, by states. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. Retrieved from