Friday, November 9, 2012

English Language Arts in STEM

Shared as a precursor to our upcoming Literacy in STEM training on November 15, this is excerpted from a larger discussion of language integration from the Alliance for Excellent Education Policy Brief (pdf):

How can teachers help ELLs handle  materials that are more demanding than what already seems
difficult enough? What will encourage secondary-level teachers to employ different contexts and
instructional  approaches to deeply engage all students in  acquiring language  through extended discourse, thinking and rethinking, explaining, and clarifying the ideas specific to a subject area? Clearly, all of these shifts place new demands on teacher capabilities and imply a significant  change  in how high schools are organized to provide an equitable and inclusive approach to teaching students with diverse language needs.

Unfortunately,  many secondary schools spent the last decade calibrating their practices to a system that was focused on moving only  a few more students each year over a low, fixed bar on state tests. This strategy  entrenched ineffective  approaches to teaching subject matter. Low-level task assignments and inconsequential teacher-student interactions  contributed  to adolescents’ growing disengagement with school after grade five.

A 2006 survey examining why students dropped out of school found that 70 percent said they were disengaged from their classes.

Students facing the additional hurdle of not understanding the language of instruction  understandably  disengage even faster than their non-ELL peers.

The adoption of college- and career-ready standards provides an opportunity to reimagine the core
instruction in high school classrooms that  has left large numbers of students—not just those identified as ELLs—struggling  to achieve grade-level performance. Leadership and vision are needed to provide the conditions and capacity for all educators working within and across schools to develop the deep understanding of content and instructional strategies central to attaining the standards. For example, as noted by the NRC, ―Learning science is something that students do, not something that is done to them.

The NRC’s Framework for K–12 Science Education identifies eight inquiry-based
practices in science and engineering that are accompanied by the language-based performance
expectations articulated in the ELA standards.

These inquiry-based approaches encourage  doing with understanding rather than focusing on broad
content coverage and recall of discrete facts. Language permeates the inquiry practices and
represents a major shift in science instruction toward an explicit focus on conceptual
understanding,  language use, and scientific practices.  The content, performance, and
language demands of these new science standards will challenge  all students and even
more so learners with limited English proficiency.  Carefully designed curriculum, evidence-based strategies, and language-focused instruction will be essential to making content and language accessible to English learners.

The science  framework focuses on a limited set of core ideas to prepare students for broader
understanding and deeper levels of investigation. It is designed to actively engage students in scientific
and engineering practices and apply crosscutting concepts of the field.

The standards call for students to design and use models;  develop explanations and solutions; engage in argument for evidence; and obtain, evaluate, and communicate information.

In addition, the ELA standards for  literacy in science for grades six through twelve  emphasize this critical connection between academic uses of language and understanding the key practices and ideas.  For example, by grade twelve, students are expected to be able to summarize complex concepts or processes, construct explanations of natural phenomena, and integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media.

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