Contemporary Instructional Approaches to Promote STEM Learning for English Learners

The release of the report English Learners in STEM Subjects: Transforming Classrooms, Schools, and Lives (shortened to “the report” hereafter) (NASEM 2018) is timely, as three emerging forces shape the changing landscape of K–12 science education. First, demographics of the nation’s student population are rapidly changing, including the fast-growing subpopulation of English Learners (ELs). Second, A Framework for K–12 Science Education (NRC 2012) and the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS; NGSS Lead States 2013) are both academically rigorous and language intensive. Third, computer science, including computational thinking, is becoming increasingly important for all students.

I will describe two key domains the report highlights: contemporary views on language and STEM subjects with ELs, and contemporary instructional approaches compared to traditional instructional approaches with ELs. Based on these two key domains, the report contains promising instructional strategies (see Chapter 4).

Contemporary Views on Language and STEM Subjects With English Learners

Recently, parallel shifts in STEM subjects and second language acquisition have occurred. In STEM subjects, contemporary views emphasize that students make sense of phenomena and problems in the classroom community (knowledge-in-use), while traditional views have focused on individual learners’ mastery of discrete elements of content. In second language acquisition, contemporary views emphasize that language is a set of meaning-making practices learned through participation in social contexts (language-in-use), but traditional views have focused on discrete elements of vocabulary (lexicon) and grammar (syntax) to be internalized by learners. Recognizing these instructional shifts as mutually supportive can promote rigorous STEM learning and rich language use with all students, including ELs. When ELs are engaged in STEM disciplinary practices in which STEM experts and professionals regularly engage (e.g., developing models, arguing from evidence, constructing explanations), ELs learn STEM subjects and language simultaneously.

As ELs learn STEM subjects while engaging in disciplinary practices, they use language to make meaning through social interactions with peers and the teacher in the classroom community. ELs use language and other meaning-making resources purposefully in the service of “doing” and communicating ideas about STEM subjects (Lee et al. 2013). ELs can communicate their ideas using less-than-perfect English.

Contemporary Instructional Approaches Compared to Traditional Instructional Approaches With English Learners

With its charge to reimagine instructional approaches to promote STEM learning and language learning with ELs, the report compares contemporary instructional approaches to traditional instructional approaches. First, it is a misconception that disciplinary vocabulary is disciplinary language. While contemporary approaches recognize that disciplinary vocabulary is one key feature of disciplinary language when the vocabulary is used in context, language in STEM subjects extends way beyond vocabulary. In STEM classrooms, ELs use language to engage in disciplinary practices and communicate disciplinary meaning. Through this engagement, ELs learn language as a product.

Second, a misconception exists that a certain level of English proficiency is a precursor or prerequisite to meaningfully engaging in STEM learning. This misconception has led to pre-teaching and frontloading of vocabulary. Instead, contemporary approaches highlight the functional use of language in social interactions and view language as a product, not a precursor or prerequisite.

Third, in content-based language teaching, which has been common practice until recently, EL teachers are asked to develop “content objectives” and “language objectives.” Typical language objectives focus on grammatical forms (past tense) or only on a particular function out of context (“compare. . . .”). Instead, contemporary approaches highlight using language while engaging in STEM disciplinary practices and learning language as a product.

Finally, sheltered instruction with ELs often provides highly simplified content that seldom satisfies grade-level content expectations. This approach fails to meet the goal of content standards that are expected of all students, including ELs. In addition, simplification of language can have unintended consequences for ELs. For example, as cause-and-effect is a crosscutting concept across STEM subjects, shortening a sentence by eliminating words that establish a causal relationship (e.g., because, therefore) can actually make it more difficult for ELs to understand disciplinary content. Contemporary approaches highlight amplifying language to support and challenge ELs with academically rigorous content.

The report will become more critical as emerging forces continue to shape the changing landscape of K–12 science education in the coming years. Today, there is consensus in science education on what counts as science and how children learn science. Moreover, the science education community’s contemporary view of science teaching and learning offers language-learning opportunities to and holds equitable expectations of all students, including ELs. The other two articles in this issue provide classroom examples that promote both science and language learning with ELs at the elementary and high school levels.

Okhee Lee is a professor in the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development at New York University. She was a member of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) writing team and served as leader for the NGSS Diversity and Equity Team. She was also a member of the Steering Committee for the Understanding Language Initiative at Stanford University. She is currently leading collaborative research to develop instructional materials aligned with the NGSS in order to promote science learning and language learning of elementary students, including English learners.


Lee, O., H. Quinn, and G. Valdés. 2013. Science and language for English language learners in relation to Next Generation Science Standards and with implications for Common Core State Standards for English language arts and mathematics. Educational Researcher 42(4): 223–233.

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM). 2018. English learners in STEM subjects: Transforming classrooms, schools, and lives. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

National Research Council (NRC). 2012. A framework for K–12 science education: Practices, crosscutting concepts, and core ideas. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

NGSS Lead States. 2013. Next Generation Science Standards: For states, by states. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.


Note: This article was featured in the March issue of Next Gen Navigator, a monthly e-newsletter from NSTA delivering information, insights, resources, and professional learning opportunities for science educators by science educators on the Next Generation Science Standards and three-dimensional instruction.  Click here to sign up to receive the Navigator every month.

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1 Response to Contemporary Instructional Approaches to Promote STEM Learning for English Learners

  1. Anthony Kolios says:

    The word “Contemporary” is misleading and misused.

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