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English-Learners and the New Science Standards

The final set of new science standards released to the public yesterday presents an unprecedented opportunity for English-language learners to learn rich, academic language at the same time they are learning rigorous science content, language experts say.

At the same time, the new science standards present a far more sophisticated level of language that will challenge many ELLs and their teachers.

As with the Common Core State Standards in English/language arts and mathematics, English-learners, regardless of their level of command of the language, will be expected to demonstrate their proficiency with the "next generation" science standards just like their native English-speaking peers. The standards assume that all students, even those who have traditionally struggled with low achievement in science, can demonstrate mastery of complex scientific and engineering concepts.

What's different about the science standards, however, is that the needs of ELLs and other diverse learners were given much more careful consideration as the new academic expectations were being drafted. That, in part, stemmed from the team of writers, which included at least two science educators who are also ELL experts.

The final standards also include a 21-page chapter—Appendix D—that discusses how they can made accessible to all students. The appendix includes specific instructional approaches that teachers may use with various types of learners to help them access the standards.

In a forthcoming paper to be published in Educational Researcher, Okhee Lee, an education professor at New York University and perhaps the best-known expert on ELLs and science learning; Helen Quinn, a professor emeritus of physics at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center at Stanford University; and Guadalupe Vald├ęs, an education professor at Stanford, argue that the acts of "learning" and "doing" science and engineering as envisioned in the standards will also develop language skills. For that to happen, though, requires a number of shifts, they write. A critical one is a changing role for science teachers, who must actively encourage and support language use and participation by English-learners in classroom discourse, even when students' English is flawed.

UPDATE: The full paper is available here.

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