STEAM education for English learners
Monday, June 24, 2019
Educators all over the world are familiar with the importance of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) as critical skills in the 21st century. Employers around the world are looking for students who are proficient in these content areas as pathways to college and career readiness.
Some have included another letter acronym in this abbreviation, an “a” for “art.” This iteration creates the acronym STEAM: science, technology, engineering, art, and math.
While it is easy to recognize the importance of integrating these areas into instruction, when working with English learners, teachers may feel that there are challenges or issues that arise for implementing deep STEAM instruction with this population.
Of course, the primary consideration when working with English learners, as opposed to other populations of students, is language. English learners need additional support to develop academic language skills in English, and teachers need to support language acquisition and learning through a variety of instructional techniques, including increased scaffolding, academic discourse, support in utilizing sentence frames, and increasing both general academic and domain specific vocabulary.
That said, in each of the areas of STEAM education, there are considerations we can take in deepening our instruction for English learners.
Teaching Content: Science, Engineering, and Mathematics
Science, engineering, and mathematics are complex; students in these classes need to not only understand complex academic language and vocabulary, but also complicated content and procedures. There are, however, a few techniques teachers can use to help increase students’ knowledge of science, engineering and math.
For example, have students read articles that integrate topics from these content areas. There are several fantastic websites that support schools, teachers, and students. Some of these websites provide short articles written about a variety of topics, including issues related to the sciences, engineering and mathematics that can be shared with students at a variety of reading levels.
By having students read articles related to these topics, students can practice literacy skills while they are building background knowledge while at the same time developing comprehension skills.
Coupled with using text with content topics and themes, teachers should focus on vocabulary instruction as a way to deepen students’ knowledge of science and scientific principles, engineering and mathematics. It is important here to focus on both general academic vocabulary as well as domain specific vocabulary. Both types of vocabulary are of critical importance in these content areas, of course.
General academic words, such as process or analyze/analysis, are cross-cutting and relate to a variety of subject areas. Domain-specific vocabulary includes those words that are specific to the content being taught. Consider words such as photosynthesis, xylem and phloem. These words are specific to botany, and do not relate to other subject areas.
Included in the emphasis on general academic and domain specific vocabulary is pointing out root words, prefixes and suffixes. This practice has a strong research base and teaches students word analysis and word families.
Because much of the vocabulary in these content areas have Latin roots, it is possible to teach students who speak Spanish, Italian, French, or Portuguese that Latin roots in academic vocabulary words can provide them with clues to words they may know in their native language.
Comprehensible input is another key concept in teaching these content areas. English learners need to understand the instruction you are providing. While there are many strategies you can use to help make your instruction more comprehensible, a few simple ones include bringing in visuals, such as photographs, sketches, graphs, or videos.
In addition, frontloading and pre-teaching key vocabulary and content concepts will also help give students the language they will need to more deeply understand the concepts and skills being taught.
Integrating technology into instruction benefits English learners just as it does students who are native or fluent English speakers. The integration of technology into instruction helps students become college- and career-ready by familiarizing them with the tools that are increasingly used in the workplace.
There are some considerations, however, when integrating technology with English learners. Just as we discussed with the teaching of science, engineering, and mathematics, the main consideration is language. Do internet sites, computer programs and apps have supports for students who are not yet proficient in English?
One common support that teachers may incorporate are the various translation services that technology can offer. While translation can be a useful tool in the classroom, as teachers we should be cautious that it is used as a last resort.
In other words, students should not look to translate everything, but rather use translation software or apps after trying other means to determine the meaning of words or phrases. Students should first attempt to determine the meaning of new words through context clues if reading. Or, if the word is used by the teacher, the teacher can add a visual or share the meaning with the student as needed.
Ultimately, the students should not just type everything into a program to have it translated for them, but rather should use these tools judiciously when they are unable to determine the meaning of words, phrases, or text through other means.
In addition, students may not have equal access to technology. Some students may have additional, or more limited access to various devices at home, an internet connection or high-speed access in the community, etc. It is prudent that we do not assume all students have access to home technology, such as tablets or computers, or that their parents allow access to the internet from home.
It is important that we are aware of the variety of situations that all of our students come from and experience. There may be cultural differences in terms of the use of technology that should be considered as well, including the amount of technology used, and how technology is used at school or at home.
Art integration is often left out of the equation when discussing STEM education, and while art is a subject area on its own, it can be integrated into all subject areas. The arts are an important part of being a well-rounded human being.
In addition, the arts are a cornerstone of civilization and culture. The integration of the arts into instruction is not frivolous; rather it brings in another modality to learning. For English learners, adding the arts can also help to lower the linguistic demand of tasks.
Through integration of the arts, students can demonstrate learning, take notes, or otherwise internalize the information being presented while at the same time relying less heavily on language. The arts also help students demonstrate concepts non-linguistically. Non-linguistic representations are used in a variety of subject areas, including mathematics and science.
Of course, many of the topics and strategies discussed here pertain to each area of STEAM. Hands-on activities, including conducting experiments in science, using an interactive whiteboard in the classroom with students, building things and adjusting designs in engineering, developing collages in art, or using manipulatives in mathematics, all benefit English learners as well as all students in the classroom.
The addition of STEAM instruction across the curriculum will help to create students that are critical thinkers that are college and career ready.
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