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Teaching High-Level Science Content to English Language Learners

November 3, 2015

Master Teacher Guest Blog Series – Part 1: All About the Kids Post 4 of 5

Science Master Teacher, Linda Berger recognizes that all students are naturally curious; they ask questions, they explore, and they propose explanations for what they discover. In short, kids are born scientists.

In today’s blog, Linda describes the process she uses to make rigorous, high-level science content accessible to her ELL students, ensuring that her teaching is “All About the Kids,” all the kids.


The thirst to learn…we all have it, regardless of our background or first language. As such, it is imperative to engage and challenge all students with rigorous science lessons, allowing them the opportunity to explore their own curiosity and satisfy their thirst for discovery.

When it comes to presenting high-level Science lessons in an effective and supportive learning community with English Language Learners (ELLs), however, there are some key strategies that foster success. In Classrooms that Work, Cunningham & Allington share ways they create an environment where all students are invited to access the curriculum:

  • ELLs need to front-load (review prior to the lesson) new vocabulary
  • Practice it as a whole group
  • Get a clear visual
  • Utilize hands-on implementations to give this new material valuable application

As opposed to a vocabulary list and presentation delivered out of context, these strategies are essential, particularly for ELLs to create dimension and encourage a climate of student success.  

Our students think all their ideas are original, as it should be. “What?? You mean someone else thought of this before me?!?!” We can combine their natural confidence and our smart strategies to effectively introduce this high-level Science curriculum. I firmly believe the material should be presented appropriate to the leveled grade, subject, and lesson- no need to ‘dumb down’ anything! The trick is to both scaffold the lessons to support its application and illustrate its purpose.

When I planned this simple Kindergarten lesson on isopod structure, I wanted to make sure that the ELL students had a way to better understand the new material: say it, practice it, apply it. I introduced new material and gave them a way to have a direct connection to it in the context of a tactile project, all while maximizing the opportunities for communication. In this lesson, I support an ELL student with wait time and prompts, allowing him to process and apply the new material at the pace that was right for him. His resulting feeling of success was palpable (truth be told, so was mine!), the definition of a great lesson.   

These simple steps help scaffold English Learners’ lesson absorption and develop confidence until they reach a point when they can take a more active and independent role in their learning. Introducing new vocabulary, combined with a way to see it in action, is a simple way to present high-level concepts. Curiosity at its most elemental is such an amazing and motivating quality. Great discoveries and simple learning come from this natural wonder. We just need to make sure that all students have access to our curriculum to make this type of curiosity come alive, including ELLs. Then, all we need to do is stand out of the way.


Linda Berger is a Kindergarten teacher at Manuel De Vargas Elementary in San Jose, California. She holds a Master’s in Special Education – Autism Spectrum Disorders, and was a member of the BetterLesson Science Master Teacher Project. To see all of Linda’s Kindergarten science lessons, please click here.

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