Project Perspectives on English Language Learners and STEM Education

On July 22, 2011, representatives from three DRK-12 projects joined CADRE staff for a conference call to collectively discuss their work with ELLs, the challenges associated with work in this area, dissemination strategies, and advice for those new to the field. We invite you to listen in!

Get to know the projects featured in this spotlight as project members discuss their goals and what they've learned so far.

The Role of Educative Curriculum Materials in Science Teaching Practices with English Language Learners
Featuring Jacqueline Barber (PI) and Marco Bravo (Co-PI)
6min 53sec

Collaborative Online Projects for ELL Students
Featuring Carolyn Knox (PI) and Fatima Terrazas-Arellanes (Co-PI)
5min 50sec

Design and Use of Illustrations in Test Items as a Form of Accommodation for English Language Learners in Science and Mathematics Assessment
Featuring Guillermo Solano-Flores (PI)
4min 56sec

Project members describe their experiences with key issues, considerations, and strategies in this field.

What’s the next question that you see coming out of your work or the next big question you think needs to be addressed for ELLs in STEM?
Featuring Guillermo Solano-Flores, Marco Bravo, Fatima Terrazas-Arellanes, Carolyn Knox, and Jacqueline Barber (in order of appearance)
7min 43sec

  • Educating stakeholders at all levels: It is important that representatives at all levels of education have an understanding of the accommodations being provided for ELL students. Solano-Flores explained that the next step in his work is to ensure that the forms of accommodation used in their assessments are properly understood by practitioners, policymakers, test publishers, and the measurement community. Specifically, Solano-Flores has noticed, “people may get the wrong idea that just drawing something and adding it to the text of the item will do the job and help ELLs understand the content of the item without being aware of the complexity of this task.”
  • Support and training for teachers: Both Collaborative Online Projects for ELL Students and The Role of Educative Curriculum Materials in Supporting Science Teaching Practices with English Language Learners found that they had not originally dedicated enough attention to the role of teachers in the curriculum development process. As noted by Barber, “… we can focus on the student, but the teachers play such a key role that sometimes we need to step back and work with the teachers and attend to their learning.”

On Collaborative Online Projects for ELL Students, Terrazas-Arellanas and Knox found it essential to provide additional supports for teachers both in terms of linguistic accommodations and technology supports built into the curriculum. According to Terrazas-Arellanas, “Teacher training is a very important piece of any intervention, which should never be underestimated during the development process. Content-area teachers do not receive much training about how to meet the needs of ELL students, so it is very critical that we spend time training teachers about ELL learner characteristics and how those flow into teaching and learning strategies.” They are currently revising their training materials to better support teachers in utilizing these accommodations and will investigate the impact in the coming year.

Barber explained that on their project, the design of their educative curriculum materials reflects a consideration of teacher characteristics and learning trajectories in an effort to better support teachers in utilizing these accommodations in the classroom with ELL students. However, they still have questions about how teachers with different characteristics (e.g., new vs. veteran) are making use of the materials and supports. Based upon their findings to date, they are planning to develop a digital guide in which teachers can personalize the curriculum. The goal would be to not just give an accommodation here and there, but, in the long run, provide a thoughtful sequence of accommodations that takes into account the teacher learning trajectory.

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in your work?
Featuring Carolyn Knox, Fatima Terrazas-Arellanes, Guillermo Solano-Flores, and Jacqueline Barber (in order of appearance)
6min 43sec

  • Translation: Knox noted that translating the Mexican science materials has been a more complicated process than anticipated. In addition to the difficult process of translating from Spanish to English, she and project colleagues found that additional changes were needed to adapt the materials for students and schools in the United States. For example, the science content must be translated in a way that maintains validity, but for certain topics, such as environmental science, the science content and examples needed to be relevant to students living in different geographic regions. They also must take into account the variability of reading level and English proficiency for the ELL students.
  • New terrain: Solano-Flores noted that there are challenges intrinsic to the nature of the product they want to develop, because they are working in a completely new terrain. He notes that although there is literature on images, the methodology is weak and primarily focused on illustrations in text books. As a result, they are tasked with developing new theory and methodologies in their project. His project has also found it difficult to access test items. But he acknowledges, “those are the natural challenges you’d face when you are doing a project that is essentially finding a new way of doing something.”
  • Recruitment: Barber noted that their biggest challenge, classroom recruitment, has become increasingly difficult over the years.  Originally, they intended to situate the entire study in Arizona. After recruiting test sites and classrooms, the state’s Supreme Court decision to remove ELLs from the mainstream classroom for part of the day meant that the recruited classrooms no longer included ELL students. Consequently, the project team needed to scramble to find classrooms out of state to fulfill the 90 classroom requirement for analysis. Another recruitment challenge they have experienced is that ELL classrooms often don’t have time for science because they are unwilling to release some of their literacy time to test new approaches for learning.

On the other hand, the COPELLS project, based in Oregon, has found changes in state policy to be supportive of their project goals. Oregon recently released a mandate that requires the needs of all students to be met. Knox has found that the mandate is supportive of the kind of research they are doing:  “We see a lot of enthusiasm for the work we’re doing from the department of education in our state and educators in general and people are recognizing the need for a more positive and proactive approach to meeting the needs of our students who speak English as a second language.” 

  • A diverse target audience: Bravo noted the importance of remembering that ELLs are a diverse and dynamic group, with a range of proficiencies in English, literacy skills in English, and literacy skills in their native language. This poses challenges when trying to identify adaptations that would be helpful for ELLs; some adaptations would be helpful to students at more advanced levels of English proficiency but not for others.

What are the most effective ways of disseminating your work and reaching a wider audience?
Featuring Guillermo Solano-Flores, Fatima Terrazas-Arellanes, and Jacqueline Barber (in order of appearance)
4min 47sec

All participants agreed that it is important to foster communication with at all levels of decision-making and practice, including educators, members of the research community, funding agencies, and policymakers.

Barber highlighted the importance of utilizing a combination of top down and bottom up strategies. For example, she suggests that one way to start from the “top” is to include summaries of research project findings in influential reports, such as The Opportunity Equation.  She found that this attracted attention to her work that it would not have otherwise received and offered support to NSF’s larger dissemination efforts from programs of research such as DRK-12.

On the other hand, Barber acknowledged that “in the field” successes can be very important as well. She gave an example from a summer school program they’re running in Minneapolis where 80% of participating students are ELLs. The participating educators in Minneapolis have found that the program is making a difference, and they are excited about it. They’ve recently shared their experiences with a group in Texas that is now also interested in the materials. As shown in this case, the opportunity for schools and districts to see that a program works with their students in their district and their teachers is very important, but it is often hard to spread the word this way.

Do you have advice for new projects about ELLs?
Featuring Marco Bravo and Guillermo Solano-Flores
1min 38sec

There are many gaps in the literature on ELLs, which makes for many opportunities for interesting and exciting new research. Participants offered the following advice to those starting new work in this field:

  • Review the literature: The Collaborative Online Projects for ELL Students project emphasized the importance of reviewing the existing literature on ELLs, including research in linguistics, to ensure a strong conceptual framework and a research design that addresses areas where there is still a lack of understanding. In an email following the July conference call, Terrazas-Arellanas noted that several studies (particularly Thomas & Collier) indicate that native language proficiency is one of the best predictors for second language acquisition, though the literature provides little guidance about how to take advantage of native language proficiency in content-area instruction.
  • Make decisions informed by local policy: Based on her experience, Barber emphasized the importance of taking into consideration the policies of the school, district, and state that mediate the type of instruction provided to ELLs, particularly when choosing study sites. 
  • Involve experts early: All three projects recommended having linguistic expertise represented on the project team throughout its duration. For projects in which ELLs are a focus, it is important to have expertise in language, including bilingual education and/or language acquisition, in addition to math and science expertise. Solano-Flores emphasized that, if this population is not considered at the very beginning of the project, then the service provided will not be the best quality.