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Teaching Beginner ESL Students in Your Regular Education Science Class

By Finn Orfano

Here are some strategies to get the ESL students in your class involved and working on the material. Students will focus on key vocabulary and terms while improving their English.

As the number of ESL students increases in middle schools and high schools more and more regular education teachers are finding ESL students in their class. These students often have very limited English skills. This causes stress for the student and the teacher. In my experience, as a middle school ESL teacher, I have found that history and science teachers seem to struggle the most. This article will focus on teaching science to ESL learners with very limited English proficiency at the high school or middle school level.

In most middle schools and high schools recently arrived immigrant students with limited English will be scheduled in the ESL classroom for the majority of their classes. Their language arts class and their supplemental reading type classes will take place with the ESL teacher. So the student isn’t completely isolated from the rest of the student population, he will usually be placed in regular education, non ESL, history and science class. These teachers may or may not have received some training in ESL strategies in the past. Nothing changes the fact that this added responsibility can be overwhelming.

Activity for ESL Students

Science classes are usually taught out of the text book chapter by chapter. Teachers can and will add supplemental materials during the semester, but the information in the chapters is always covered. As a teacher with one or more limited English speaking students you find yourself wondering what to do with these students. They are not able to read the chapters and understand them. Your regular education students can barely do this at times! You need to come up with realistic priorities for these special learners for each chapter or unit.

Pick fifteen to thirty key vocabulary words that are essential to what you are covering. Make your beginning ESL students responsible for learning these words. While the class is reading or answering written questions your ESL students are working on these words. They are looking up the definitions in their dictionaries or in their Spanish copy of the textbook, if you have Spanish speaking students and the district has purchased these books. Have them make index cards for each word or term that lists the word, the definition, a sentence that they create using the word and a picture representing the word.

This activity gives the students a relevant task to cling onto and participate in as they improve their English and move from survival mode to English proficiency. These students can be listening during the class lectures and discussions. They won’t understand a lot of what is being said, but this is part of the process. One of the main reasons that they are in your class is to be exposed to English and English speakers other than their ESL teacher.

Don’t get too stressed about having a non-English speaking student in your class. Nobody is expecting you to be a miracle worker. You will find that once you give them a concrete task they will be eager to work and show you what they can do.