Editor’s Note: I’ve invited Stephen Fleenor to write about teaching Science to English Language Learners, and will be adding this post to The Best Resources For Teaching The Next Generation Science Standards To English Language Learners.

Stephen Fleenor is based in San Antonio, Tx as an educational consultant with Seidlitz Education (www.seidlitzeducation.com). Stephen earned his PhD in Developmental Neurobiology from the University of Oxford before teaching and coaching high school science in low-income schools in San Antonio. Stephen’s primary focus is the advancement of English learners and other disadvantaged students by promoting growth mindset and academic expression.


Let’s face it: science is hard.  Each course introduces upwards of hundreds of new vocabulary words; concepts are often abstract and more often microscopic; and content builds on itself, such that poor understanding of fundamental ideas at the beginning of the year impedes deep understanding later on in the year.  Furthermore, effectively dissecting scientific charts, graphs and diagrams (an essential part of learning science) requires advanced literacy and inferencing skills.

For English learners (ELs), the challenges of learning science are often compounded by their linguistic needs.  However, it is in the service of ELs that my colleagues and I have discovered how to facilitate rich science learning for all students.  In fact, we have found that pedagogy centered around second-language acquisition is ideally suited for teaching science.  Science is, by all dimensions of the definition, the language of the natural world, and all students (ELs and non-ELs alike) are science language learners.  It is when we commit to teaching science as a language that our students begin to listen, read, speak and write as scientists.

The Vocabulary of Science

A major challenge in teaching new vocabulary in science is the fact that the definitions of vocabulary words are often conceptually complex. Furthermore, terms and concepts are often interconnected. Deeply understanding the term “covalent bond,” for example, requires an understanding of the orbits of electrons around atomic nuclei as well as the tendency for outer orbitals to complete octets of electrons.  Rote memorization of the definition, “a chemical bond in which electron pairs are shared,” is insufficient for real learning of what a covalent bond is and fails to establish a foundation for deeper learning, such as a comparison of covalent bonds to ionic or metallic bonds.

Visuals, however, provide powerful opportunities for students to connect conceptually with vocabulary and think about how the vocabulary fits into the broader context of the lesson.  Visuals can be representative models or can be metaphorical (Figure 1). In the covalent bond example, the visual may depict electrons being exchanged between two atoms or may depict two shaking hands.  The former is advantageous because of its accuracy and detail in showing the role of electrons, while the latter is advantageous because it relates the concept to an everyday example; both, however, clearly demonstrate the central concept of sharing between two entities.  In the most effective science classrooms I have seen, visuals are as essential to the lesson as desks and pencils. In these classrooms, students are introduced to new vocabulary at the beginning of the lesson, and each vocabulary word is presented with a distinct visual. The introduction comprises open-ended questions which guide students’ thinking about what each visual represents (for examples, see Figure 1).  The etymological breakdown of each word, such as the meaning of “co-” (together or with) as a prefix in “covalent,” is also taught or reviewed. Throughout the lesson, the visuals are constantly referred back to so that students can connect new learning with what they see in the representations.

The use of visuals should not be perceived as a “crutch” or impediment to long-term learning; in fact, on the contrary, visuals greatly facilitate the brain’s ability to retain and retrieve information (Aisami, 2015).  Visuals also greatly enhance English language acquisition for ELs, improving reading and writing and the use of “mortar” words, or general English words and phrases which connect vocabulary words together in academic texts (Halwani, 2017).  This is particularly true when ELs are given the opportunity to speak and write in a structured manner using visuals as a reference. In structured speaking and writing, students connect vocabulary words to the context of the question by using the vocabulary in their own terms.  At the end of a lesson that utilizes rich visuals paired with speaking and thinking opportunities, students walk away with a deep understanding of vocabulary and content.


The Grammar of Science

Science is more than a list of vocabulary words, however.  Science at its heart is a process, guided by rules and methodology in the same way that grammar guides language.  Scientific texts are often linguistically complex and interdependent on graphs, diagrams, and charts which present synthesized or raw data.  When students are taught how to analyze scientific texts, they begin to understand the structural patterns in scientific writing. Reading comprehension strategies, such as before/during/after strategies, improve literacy as well as understanding of science content (Patterson, Roman, Friend, Osborne, & Donovan, 2018).  More importantly, reading and listening about primary data acquisition and analysis (such as historical or hypothetical experiments) is fundamental to students learning the scientific method.

Part-and-parcel of the grammar of science is the analysis of data presented in graphs, diagrams, and charts.  When students are asked to speak and write in a structured way about conclusions they can draw from data, they engage in deep thinking about the process of gathering the data and how the results of the experiment tie into their background knowledge.  Students who are taught how to analyze data then apply the data trends they observe in laboratory experiences towards general knowledge of scientific models. Indeed, graphs, diagrams, and charts are nothing more than complex visuals. Providing opportunities for structured thinking and expression about these complex visuals is hugely beneficial for both ELs and non-ELs.

The shift towards teaching science as a language essentially depends on a mind-shift about what students need to learn.  The standards are densely packed with science content which teachers understandably often feel compelled to deliver as quickly as possible.  But when students are taught the process of constructing science, the content comes fluidly and efficiently. Ultimately, teaching the language of science not only dramatically helps ELs acquire English, but also forms all students into thinking and acting scientists.



Aisami, R. S. (2015). Learning styles and visual literacy for learning and performance. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 176, 538-545.

Halwani, N. (2017). Visual aids and multimedia in second language acquisition. English Language Teaching, 10(6), 53-59.

Patterson, A., Roman, D., Friend, M., Osborne, J., & Donovan, B. (2018). Reading for meaning: The foundational knowledge. International Journal of Science Education, 40(3), 291-307.