With the implementation of the Common Core State Standards, content-area literacy is a huge focus right now. The Common Core State Standards emphasize the literacy of math, science and technical subjects in English language arts.

Science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) content areas are difficult for ESL students. To meet the literacy objectives under the Common Core State Standards, ESL and content-area teachers must work together in teaching STEM content-area vocabulary.

ESL students will not be able to understand STEM subject area objectives or texts without understanding the technical vocabulary within each. This is why it is crucial for content-area teachers and ESL teachers to work together in teaching STEM vocabulary.

To effectively teach STEM vocabulary, use Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol (SIOP) methods for English language development.

ESL teachers can teach content-area teachers second-language acquisition strategies. Content-area teachers can teach ESL teachers the technical language: phrases, terms, meanings, formulas, etc.

Strategies for STEM vocabulary development between ESL teachers and content-area teachers

  • Generate a list of terms and phrases that ESL students will not know which need to be pretaught. Next preteach the terms and phrases before the lesson is taught in the content-area classrooms. Use methods and resources listed below for preteaching.
  • Label classrooms with vocabulary labels to help ESL students have visual guides.
  • Write all content demonstrations and directions out for students to see and reference. This can be on a class board, interactive whiteboard presentation or classroom handout.
  • Create content-area objectives and language learning objectives that correlate with lesson tasks.
  • Practice vocabulary through modeling of real-life scenarios. Do mini experiments, virtual experiments, virtual field trips and the like to create real-life scenarios.
  • Use graphic organizers that generate meaning and understanding. Have students practice labeling and making diagrams of vocabulary concepts. These tools can be used also to practice cause and effect relationships.
  • Have students create ESL STEM dictionaries of the lesson terms. Have them draw or paste a picture of the meaning of the word, write the part of speech, create a list of synonyms, write the definition of the word, use the word in a general sentence, and then use the word in a STEM-focused sentence.
  • Use videos and interactive resources online and on mobile apps to facilitate vocabulary understanding.
  • Act out content, use songs or chants to teach vocabulary.
  • Use realia (real objects) to have students make connections with the real world and to facilitate content-area understanding.
  • If you have access to an interactive whiteboard, use a document camera to snap a photo to generate labels or write about the object. Document cameras can also be used to review content and meaning in the textbook.
  • Video record lessons, demonstrations, small group presentations, etc., in the classroom and make the recordings accessible for students. Upload records to classroom websites or to the school's content management system.
  • Break students into small groups. Give a vocabulary learning tasks to complete. Have them present their findings to the class.
  • Use mobile apps to create personalized vocabulary flash cards, video recordings, dictionary applications and any other applications that will make the STEM content meaningful.
  • Use social media classroom outlets to create conversations about STEM concepts.
  • Use informational and clarifying questions to build understanding.
  • Have students practice making a hypothesis and prediction in various real-life scenarios.
  • Take students through the entire scientific process or through a mathematical formula. Have them diagram the process as you go through it step by step. Then, have students retell what happened and how the answer was determined.
  • Use cognates between languages to encourage understanding of difficult vocabulary words.
  • Engage instruction and pace lessons according to student needs. Implement longer wait periods to help ESL students respond to the difficult questions and technical tasks that STEM area learning requires.
  • Create a content-area word wall and concept definition map to help ESL students use as vocabulary referencing tools.
  • Have students take notes of text, highlight key information, write outlines, etc., of the subject textbook to make the content comprehensible for students.
  • Incorporate reading and writing activities for vocabulary development.
  • Build upon prior knowledge and basic interpersonal communication skills (BICS) in lessons and activities.
  • In lessons and activities teach word families and parts of speech.

Access digital resources and tools to facilitate STEM vocabulary acquisition

STEM vocabulary instruction should be approached in an eclectic form with multiple approaches to facilitate comprehensible input for ELLs. The same content should be taught using different strategies to maximize student understanding since no ESL student learns in the same manner.

Using SIOP methods along with STEM resources will help ESL teachers and content-area teachers bring effective STEM vocabulary instruction and development to students. ESL teachers must work alongside STEM content-area teachers to meet the content-area literacy objectives under the Common Core State Standards.