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6 Effective Practices for Teaching STEM to MLLs

Written by: Darlyne de Haan
Published on: Sep 12, 2022

Photo credit: wittayayut/Adobe Stock

Teaching STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) or STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, math; for simplicity, I’ll use STEM in this article) to multilingual learners (MLLs) can be very challenging because STEM vocabularies can be very complex for even the native English speaker—so imagine that same vocabulary for students whose primary language is not English. However, every teacher should understand that a student’s ability to speak English should not be confused with the student’s ability to think scientifically.

My next few blog posts will focus on STEM project ideas for MLLs and different ways to help these students, based on their levels of language proficiency. But first, it is important for you to be aware of six effective practices in teaching STEM to MLLs that will help you as you navigate the projects.

1. Capitalize on Visual Literacy

Visual literacy is using visuals to develop conceptual understanding; it is independent of language. For example, being able to read music, which is composed of symbols, can be considered visual literacy because it can be read regardless of a person’s linguistic ability. The same can be said for most mathematics (there are some differences, such as commas vs decimal points). In STEM, teachers should use as many visuals as possible so that the MLLs can interpret what is occurring using minimal linguistic skills. Use diagrams, videos, modeling, graphic organizers, and pictorial guides (which are visual references for things like glassware, procedural steps, and other items needed for an experiment or activity).

2. Utilize Cooperative Learning

Place students strategically in groups (see my blog here with a section on grouping) where they can discuss, write, listen, and present ideas that facilitate understanding. MLLs need exposure to language in context to develop language and content vocabulary.

3. Tap Into Funds of Knowledge

Tap into students’ prior knowledge. All people have what is called “funds of knowledge,” or knowledge and skills gained from life experiences and developed from within their communities and families. Students’ funds of knowledge can bring a richness to STEM discussions. For example, in a class unit on severe weather, a student may not know what causes a tsunami, but they may have experienced one or know of a person or family member who has. These funds of knowledge can add to the discussion and also make the MLL a contributing member of the classroom. This is why it is important to know a students’ background—so you can use what they already know to enrich the STEM topic or challenge.

4. Provide Wait Time

This is an effective strategy often overlooked! You must remember that MLLs have to translate words and simultaneously formulate a response or explanation. Provide sufficient wait time so that the MLL has the opportunity to formulate their thoughts. If you are not sure how long to wait, try this chant, which I learned from Dylan William: “one, two, three, four, got to wait a little more.”

5. Demonstrate and Model Laboratory Activities

In STEM, students are often given a challenge to complete or problem to solve. This requires the students’ ability to rely on prerequisite knowledge and skills (see #3 above). But the student may not have been exposed to the scientific method, equipment, materials and/or processes needed to be successful. For this reason, it is very important to model or demonstrate how to use the equipment and materials—without disclosing how to solve the STEM challenge or problem. 

6. Make Time for Journaling

Writing is an integral part of a scientist’s or an engineer’s world. Effective writing requires practice and time. Be sure to provide time each day for your MLLs to write in their science journals to record vocabulary and new terms and to sketch visuals of what they did or what they learned. Do not grade the journal for spelling or grammar. This should be something the students use to track what they learned and record their thoughts and discoveries. They will also see their own progress in writing as the year progresses.

As we progress each month focusing on STEM project ideas for MLLs, keep these six effective strategies in the forefront of your thoughts.

About Darlyne de Haan

Dr. Darlyne de Haan, a former forensic scientist and chemist with more than 20 years of experience in STEM, is a recipient and participant of the coveted Fulbright Administrator Program for Fulbright Leaders for Global Schools, a program sponsored by the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. She is a strong advocate for changing the face of STEM to reflect the population and is fluent in English and advanced in Spanish.

View all posts by Darlyne de Haan →

This post first appeared on the TESOL Blog. Reprinted with permission.