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Science Curriculum for English-Language Learners Shows Promise, Study Finds

A study from researchers at New York University found that a curriculum developed for English-language learners in Florida boosted their science test scores.

The study evaluated the effects of Promoting Science Among English Language Learners (P-SELL), a science curriculum aligned with Florida's 5th-grade state science standards.

Okhee Lee, a NYU professor of childhood education who developed the curriculum, said it was designed to promote scientific inquiry and uses English-language development strategies, including translating key science terms into Spanish and Haitian Creole, the two most common English-learner home languages in the participating districts.

The curriculum and accompanying training included many of the principles included in the National Science Teacher Association's position statement on science instruction for English-language learners. The principles include: incorporating literacy skills, including reading, writing, speaking, listening, and viewing; recognizing science knowledge that ELL students gain from their family and cultural backgrounds; and using science lessons tied to state standards and anchored to science investigations that promote inquiry.

In the study, "Impact of a Large-Scale Science Intervention Focused on English Language Learners," researchers selected 66 schools in three Florida school districts, with half using the P-SELL curriculum and half using a district-adopted curriculum. To evaluate the curriculum's impact, students took two tests: the state science assessment and an exam developed by the researchers. The researchers found positive effects on both tests for English-learners and native English speakers who used P-SELL.

The research may be of particular importance to ELL advocates amid the ramp-up in testing and growing demand for accountability in science and all STEM instruction. The National Assessment of Educational Progress has revealed wide and consistent achievement gaps between English-learners and native English speakers.

The teacher professional development delivered with the curriculum may play just as important a role: Research on science education for ELLS has found that few teachers feel prepared to provide science instruction to English-learners.

Lee and Lorena Llosa, an associate professor of education at NYU, led the study, which involved more than 6,000 students during the 2012-13 school year.

Lee developed the P-SELL curriculum with support from a National Science Foundation grant. Last fall, Lee, NYU, and researchers from Stanford University landed a $3 million National Science Foundation grant to continue the work on creating a language-focused science curriculum for 5th grade students.

Future research will investigate if the P-SELL gains can be sustained over time, and what the effects are on students of varying levels of English proficiency.

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