Making Science Accessible in Multilingual Classrooms

Photo of Karen Nemeth, Ed.M.Please welcome guest blogger Karen N. Nemeth, writing about making science learning accessible in multilingual classrooms. Karen N. Nemeth, Ed.M. is an author, consultant and presenter focusing on improving early childhood education for children who are dual language learners.  She is a writer and consulting editor for NAEYC and holds leadership positions at NABE and TESOL. She has published many books and articles for early childhood educators and she provides resources for supporting diverse young learners and their families at:

Science learning provides so many opportunities for hands-on exploration, discovery and discussion in early childhood. But, how can teachers make science learning meaningful for children who don’t speak the same language? The key to succeeding with dual language learners is to plan science activities with five key questions in mind:

  • Will the materials and experiences in this activity make sense to a child who doesn’t understand what I say?
  • Will this activity teach knowledge and/or skills that the child will have many opportunities to use in every day life?
  • Will this activity focus on the here and now to support beginning science learning?
  • What words do you know in the child’s home language that you can use to help him or her connect to the vocabulary of the planned activity?
  • What resources can you use to help the child understand the words, concepts and connections you want him or her to make in this activity?

These questions will help you in two ways. First, they will help you to make adaptations to the activities you plan to introduce so that the learning is accessible to all of the children. Second, they will guide you in deciding when some activities are just not going to work with a group of children who speak different languages.

Miss Janet saw a fun science idea on a teacher website. She thought about buying the bars of white soap and putting them in the microwave to watch them expand. The video on the website was pretty amazing. But, as Miss Janet starting adding the activity to her lesson plan format, she realized it didn’t really make a good connection for her students who are DLLs. She could use her words to explain what she was doing, but just watching a bar of soap expand in a microwave didn’t have any real meaning that a child could use and it was certainly not self-explanatory for DLLs. So, she moved on to an activity that she knew would benefit all of her students.

There are plenty of options for science explorations, so letting go of some just makes room for you to try others. Try these tips from a recent post on

  • Children and teacher discussing the action of a ball moving on a ramp.Focus on activities that are linked to real life experiences that children can recognize and connect with their prior knowledge. Look for materials that children already understand so they don’t depend on explanations. Ex: Explore how food grows, where it grows, which animals eat what, and how we use science to prepare foods. Planting seeds is a wonderful science activity, but may be best left until a bit later in the school year when DLLs have more experience with the nature of science and the practices of science. When they are just getting started in school and learning a new language, activities that show no immediate results may be hard for them to understand. After they have adjusted to classroom practices and routines and they have begun to learn more science vocabulary in their home language and in English, long-term projects will be more effective.
  • Learn key vocabulary in the children’s home languages so you can explicitly connect the new words to words they already understand. Home language vocabulary is connected to a collection of concepts, so linking home language to new has lots of learning benefits. Ex. “This is a little frog. In Spanish we say la ranita. La ranita is a little frog – let’s all jump like a frog together.” This is more than translation – it helps the child take everything he knows about frogs and transfer it to his new language. Research shows that concepts learned in the home language transfer readily to the new language and form a solid foundation for future learning.
  • Two children look at flower bulbs together.Assign science buddies (peers or adult volunteers) to work together so children can have interesting conversations about their discoveries, even if you don’t understand what they say. Be sure to record the interactions so someone can help you translate and assess the level of each child’s learning.
  • Use digital resources to support topics you want to explain or discuss. Choose topics that you can find on,, or National Geographic’s website, for example, so children can see the process that you are trying to explain.
  • Learn a few key questions in the languages of the children so you can guide their thinking and let them continue independently. Ex. What do you think will happen next? How does this feel or smell? Encourage children to answer in any language – or even with drawings – to express their knowledge.

Now – dig in and have fun with science learning that works for DLLs!

Miss Janet went through a list of science activities. She crossed out “outer space” and “dinosaurs” because they can’t be represented in the here and now or in a child’s every day life. Instead, she came up with her own activities that involved cleaning things up in the classroom. She brought in different materials and explored with the children what happened when they blotted spilled water with paper towel, a sponge, a brush and dustpan, a plastic bag, a spray bottle of water or some aluminum foil. Then she presented other potential messes like spilled sand, a pile of crayons, and some beads. Using photos, Miss Janet encouraged the children to work in pairs to chart which materials were most effective for each kind of mess. She modeled for the children how they could draw what they observed or take pictures with their iPads. Some children focused on trying the same thing repeatedly. Others tried a few things and talked all about them together. And a few others focused intently on testing each combination and recording what they learned. The activity was meaningful and informative for all of the children and allowed each of them to learn about the physical world and about making observations even if they didn’t yet speak English!

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1 Response to Making Science Accessible in Multilingual Classrooms

  1. Elle Faith says:

    This is a great read. As teachers we must be able to handle the different situations that may arise in our classrooms such as bilingual speakers. We must accommodate them so that they can be included and have a sense of responsibility within the activity.

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