English Language Learners

This Spotlight features DRK-12-funded projects that are researching and developing approaches to improving STEM learning for students classified as English language learners (ELLs) or English learners (ELs). In addition to sharing their current research, projects featured in this Spotlight share their advice on how we, as a community, might better serve English learners.

There are many terms to describe students whose first language is not English and each term has subtle differences. Dual language learner (DLL), limited English proficient (LEP), English language learner (ELL) and English learner (EL), English as a second language (ESL), and other terms used by policymakers and the Department of Education are defined in this policy brief by New America. The term “emergent bilingual” was coined by Ofelia Garcia, Professor of Bilingual Education at Teachers College, Columbia University and her colleagues, Jo Anne Kleifgen and Lorraine Falchi. Their paper, From English Language Learners to Emergent Bilinguals (2008), describes why the terms used by policymakers for students learning English in school perpetuate inequalities by not taking home languages and cultural understandings into account. This Spotlight uses the title English Language Learners to align with the term most used in schools, but recognizes that bilingualism and multilingualism is an asset to students, and the projects featured in this Spotlight use a variety of the terms mentioned above.

The Spotlight on English Language Learners was originally created in 2011, highlighting the work of a few projects through short interviews and Q&A, which are still available. Guillermo Solano-Flores, whose work was featured in the 2011 Spotlight, shares lessons learned from his NSF-funded work around the effective teaching and assessment of English language learners in our DRK-12 Community Voices blog.

In this Spotlight...

Blog: Innovative Approaches to Teaching and Assessing English Language Learners

Guillermo Solano-Flores, Professor of Education, Stanford University


Addressing EL Linguistic Heterogeneity. The performance of English language learners (ELs; students who are still developing English as a second language) on tests in English and in their first language is inconsistent across languages and across test items. This instability is due to the fact that every EL student has a unique combination of strengths in each language that is not possible to capture based on tests of English proficiency.  In addition, each item poses a unique set of linguistic challenges. One implication of this heterogeneity is that blanket testing approaches (providing the same form of accommodation to all EL students) are very limited in their effectiveness to promote fair, valid testing for these students.

Design of illustrations as Testing Accommodations for ELs. Illustrations (visual representations of textual components) accompanying test items, constitute a promising form of accommodation for ELs in large-scale assessment. We have evidence that, in interpreting the content of test items, EL students use the content of illustrations to make sense of the text of items and they also use the text of the items to make sense of illustrations. This evidence provides the key to developing test items that are more accessible for ELs. However, to provide the intended support and minimize the visual complexity and cognitive demands of items, illustrations need to be carefully developed—which is costly and time consuming.

The importance of Social Interaction for EL Science Learning. Teacher-student social interaction is critical to promoting science learning among ELs. Unfortunately, teachers tend to spend most of their time interacting with the whole class, with limited social interaction with individuals or small groups of students. This limits the opportunities for teachers to understand ELs’ needs, support their language development through content learning, and integrate them socially into the classroom.

Conclusions. Lessons learned from my NSF-funded work indicate that effective teaching and assessment of English language learners largely depends on: 1) the ability of school and assessment systems to address students’ individual needs; 2) the commitment to allocate sufficient time and resources for the development of accommodations and resources accessible to ELs; and 3) the ability of educators to socially integrate ELs into their classrooms.

Featured Projects

CAREER: Analyzing the Nexus between Advantaged Social Positioning and Science Identity Development among English Language Learners (NSF #1652752)


PI: Shakhnoza Kayumova
Grade(s): 6-8
Target Audience: All audiences
STEM Discipline(s): Science in the context of integrated STEAM curriculum

Describe your project: Science learning is often conceived in terms of knowledge and skills. This research draws on theories that recognize students’ identities and agencies as critical aspects of learning. To this end, we are generating new insights about the nexus between language-based identity and science identity development among emergent bilingual and multilingual learners.

How does your project support English learners (DLLs, ELLs, Bi/Multilingual Students) in STEM Education? Recognized as a critical resource for learning, identity has not been utilized to examine the relationship between language and science identity development among bi/multilingual students. Research shows that emergent bi/multilingual students are often positioned in deficit-terms, based on their language backgrounds, affecting their science identity trajectories. We partnered with local community, school districts, and the university STEM faculty, to develop and implement a robust STEAM curriculum (STEAM Pathways). STEAM Pathways is enhanced with a 30-minute Social Positioning of English Language Learners (SPELL), intervention. SPELL’s objective is to dismantle deficit-based discourses and equip bi/multilingual students with research-based tools re-positioning themselves as cognitively advantaged. We hypothesize that bi/multilingual students who participate in STEAM Pathways with SPELL will demonstrate more sustained science identities compared to students who only participate in the STEAM Pathways intervention. As our longitudinal project develops, we argue that explicitly recognizing and legitimizing emergent bi/multilinguals diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds as valid resources during their learning processes, can enable students to marshal these strengths in support of long-term science identity development. Thus, we test whether a robust STEAM curriculum is sufficient to support emergent bi/multilingual students’ positive science identity development, or if more overt dismantling of deficit-based discourses is necessary.

If you were giving advice to other DRK-12 projects on how they could better serve English learners, what would you tell them based on what you've learned in your work? Emergent bi/multilingual students are a diverse group of learners with varied talents and backgrounds; they are not a homogenous group. Our findings show that when emergent bi/multilingual students’ cultural and language backgrounds are positioned as strengths, they demonstrate a greater investment in science learning. Moreover, language differences do not hinder these students from engaging in robust and complex STEM practices. We find that when educators and students are trained to subvert deficit-based perspectives, they are more likely to attend to equity and diversity, and see their diverse linguistic, cultural, and epistemic repertoires as valuable assets.

What’s a pressing issue or question that you think the field needs to address for English learners in STEM? STEM education continues to operate from a dominant cultural and linguistic perspective and expect diverse students to assimilate, invalidating their resources for learning. Our STEM education and research community needs to consider our students’ linguistic and cultural differences as fundamental to learning and work on transforming our learning ecologies accordingly.  

Key Challenge: A challenge that we faced in the first year of our intervention was dismantling the notions of “good” and “smart” students among our instructors and teachers. Educators tend to attribute the notions of “good” and “smart” students to cultural and behavioral issues rather than social and cognitive aspects of learning. Spaces of learning and engaging in STEM can be messy work, and we are working with our teachers and instructors to embrace this messiness in a productive way.

Theoretical Framework: We draw on social positioning theory to study the relationship between language and science identity development. Social Positioning Theory (SPT) is predicated upon the notion that individuals in social settings deliberately employ or unintentionally manifest various discursive practices which serve to index their identity positions and relative standings vis-à-vis one another. Social positioning is a two-pronged construct: it encompasses both the learner’s perception of their developing sense of self AND how others in their immediate environment perceive them (in terms of their performances, competence, and recognition). Given that learning takes place in social-settings and is a part of identity development, SPT affords researchers an analytical tool to examine how positioning of students as certain kinds of learners influences their access and opportunities to learn. It allows us to explore how the social positioning of emergent bi/multilingual students, based on their language backgrounds, both in macro level discourses and in moment-to-moment interactions, impacts their science identity and learning outcomes over time.

Methodology: This is a longitudinal, mixed-methods study. Specifically, we employ Convergent Parallel Mixed-Method design in which we collect both quantitative and qualitative data separately and then systematically compare and contrast the evidence (Creswell, 2014). The qualitative data sources include observational fields notes, video and audio recordings, and focal group interviews. Quantitative data sources include students’ pre-post identity development surveys, based on social positioning theory.

Product(s): Project Website | Article: Language is No Barrier at STEAM Summer Camp

CAREER: Designing Learning Environments to Foster Productive and Powerful Discussions among Linguistically Diverse Students in Secondary Mathematics (NSF #1553708)

Zahner project
PI: William Zahner
Grade(s): 9-12
Target Audience: Secondary Mathematics Teachers and Students
STEM Discipline(s): Mathematics

Describe your project:  We are studying how to create high school math classrooms where bilingual students who are classified as English learners can participate in robust classroom discussions. Our redesign focuses on creating accessible and powerful curriculum materials, developing equitable instructional routines, and supporting student engagement in mathematical discourse practices.  

How does your project support English learners (DLLs, ELLs, Bi/Multilingual Students) in STEM Education? This project supports ELs in STEM through making classroom discussions more accessible. We know from prior research that when students engage in classroom discussions, they can learn important mathematical concepts and develop a positive identity as a mathematics student. At the same time, we also know that many bilingual students who are classified as English learners, especially at the high school level, experience mathematics classes characterized by low-level mathematical and linguistic demands. Our goal is to transform this reality through a program of design research, done in collaboration with local teachers at a linguistically diverse school and student researchers from San Diego State University.

Our specific strategy is to research and develop design principles for high school classroom learning environments in which ELs participate in robust discussions. We started by observing mathematics classes during a "business as usual" phase and interviewing a linguistically diverse group of students about mathematics and about their experiences in school mathematics. We have taken what we learned from those observations and we are working with teachers to redesign the classroom learning environment to ensure all students can participate in classroom discussions. Three specific foci of our work are: 1) maintaining a consistent conceptual focus across the units we design, 2) integrating mathematical and language-related goals in each lesson, and 3) incorporating language supports in each lesson to make discussions available and fruitful for all students.

If you were giving advice to other DRK-12 projects on how they could better serve English learners, what would you tell them based on what you've learned in your work?  The most important guidance I would give is to consider the needs of English learners and other groups of learners at the outset of design efforts, rather than as an afterthought. Focusing on the needs of all learners (rather than those who are easy to research or easiest to understand) will result in better educational innovations for all students.

What’s a pressing issue or question that you think the field needs to address for English learners in STEM?  One pressing issue is understanding the strengths of bilingual students who are classified as ELs and leveraging the sociocultural assets that linguistically diverse students bring to schools.

Key Challenge: One key challenge is doing our research in a school setting where change is constant. Mobility by both teachers and students is relatively high. This presents a design challenge, since the methods and products used in this project must be able to adapt to this constant change (the fact that our work focuses on rate of change is an interesting irony). One way we have adapted our work to respond to this constant change has been to shift our focus. Initially we envisioned building specially designed learning trajectories that would be realized in carefully sequenced tasks and lessons. However, we have since shifted our focus to creating a more open learning environment in which all students, including bilingual students classified as English learners can participate in and lean from discussions.

Theoretical Framework: We are rooted in a broadly socio-cultural theoretical framework. We also connect with ideas from the Emergent perspective as we consider forms of reasoning and problem solving made visible in and through classroom discussions.

Methodology: Our overall approach is design research. At various stages in the work we have used naturalistic observations, clinical/cognitive interviews, and teaching experiments. We assess the impact of our designs through analyzing classroom discourse, student reasoning on written assessments, and individual and focus group interviews with students.

Product(s): Project website | Video

CAREER: Developing Elementary Preservice Teachers’ Understandings and Abilities to Support Emerging Bilingual Students’ Scientific Sensemaking (NSF #1942912)

PI: María González-Howard 
Grade Level(s): K-6
Target Audience: preservice teachers, elementary school teachers, science teacher educators, researchers in the fields of science education and bilingual education
Disciplines/Foci: Science

Description: This project will study ways to improve classroom instruction grounded in science practices to address inequities in science education for emerging bilingual students. The project will create research-based resources for teacher educators focused on developing preservice elementary teachers' understanding and abilities to support emerging bilingual students' engagement in science practices.

How does your project support English learners (DLLs, ELLs, Bi/Multilingual Students) in STEM Education? There is currently little knowledge around ways for preparing elementary preservice teachers to develop understandings and pedagogies that lie at the intersections of science and language learning. This issue is problematic given the move for states to adapt or adopt reform-oriented standards, curriculum and assessment, as well as the growing number of linguistically diverse students in the United States. This CAREER project focuses on this gap, addressing teacher learning about teaching science-as-practice, and approaches for supporting emerging bilingual students’ scientific sensemaking. As such, this project will advance new theoretical insights regarding teacher learning around science and language (e.g., How do exemplary elementary teachers conceptualize science, language, and the intersections of these domains; and what experiences helped these teachers develop these understandings? What are tensions preservice teachers describe around supporting emerging bilingual students in science content instruction? What instructional tasks or experiences help problematize and develop preservice teachers’ thinking around engaging emerging bilingual students in rigorous science instruction?) Moreover, this CAREER project will inform the design of resources for teacher education programs that can be used nationwide to prepare elementary preservice teachers. 

If you were giving advice to other DRK-12 projects on how they could better serve English learners, what would you tell them based on what you've learned in your work? I would advise other DRK-12 projects to consider expanding their notions of language learning and how language relates to doing science. As a research community, we need to move away from primarily focusing on English language development and the belief that emerging bilingual students need to acquire, or reach, an arbitrary level of English proficiency before they can have rich science learning experiences. Providing emerging bilingual students with authentic and meaningful opportunities to figure out scientific phenomena will simultaneously support their bilingualism development, as well as their science learning.

What’s a pressing issue or question that you think the field needs to address for English learners in STEM? The need to expand conceptualizations of scientific sensemaking to include, and value, linguistic (e.g., speaking and writing) and non-linguistic (e.g., gestures, drawing) forms of communication. It is critical that we realize that students can and should engage in science practices through any and all of their expressive repertoires. 

CAREER: Making Science Visible: Using Visualization Technology to Support Linguistically Diverse Middle School Students' Learning in Physical and Life Sciences (NSF #1552114)

PI: Kelly Kihyun RyooRyoo
Grade Level(s): 8
Target Audience: This project is targeted towards linguistically diverse 8th-grade students in English-dominant, Title I middle schools. Our target audience includes English learners (ELs), defined as students who mainly or exclusively speak a language other than English at home, and non-ELs, defined as students who mainly or exclusively speak English at home. It is important to remember that ELs are a highly diverse group with widely varying experiences, backgrounds, levels of English proficiency, and home languages. For example, although many of our EL participants speak Spanish at home, we have identified a wide range of other home languages, including Chinese, Korean, German, French, Haitian Creole, Russian, Urdu, and Vietnamese.
STEM Discipline(s): Energy and matter concepts in chemistry and life sciences

Describe your project:  To support linguistically diverse students’ science learning, we partner with 8th-grade science teachers and English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers at four Title I schools to develop, test, and refine interactive, dynamic visualizations (e.g., simulations, animations, and modeling tools) through design-based research.

How does your project support English learners (DLLs, ELLs, Bi/Multilingual Students) in STEM Education? Understanding the concepts of energy and matter is challenging for all students because they are abstract, unobservable processes. This challenge is magnified for ELs who are still developing proficiency in English. 

To help ELs and their non-EL peers understand these abstract concepts, we develop interactive, dynamic visualizations that explicitly depict unobservable processes, such as the relationships among energy, matter, and physical states. Using multiple representations (e.g., molecular animations, graphs, text, and symbols), visualizations can potentially reduce the linguistic burden and help them communicate their ideas. We examine the effects of dynamic visualizations on ELs’ and non-ELs’ understanding of the target concepts.

Moreover, when visualizations are carefully scaffolded, they can provide ELs with meaningful opportunities to engage in discourse-rich science practices, such as developing and using models. We explore how different types of visualizations can mediate ELs’ and non-ELs’ scientific discourse and engagement in science practices. 

Finally, since little is known about how to design effective scaffolding approaches for ELs when using visualizations, we design a wide range of approaches, such as argumentation prompts and automated feedback. We investigate which scaffolding approach can maximize ELs’ understanding of the content and help them engage in scientific discourse.

If you were giving advice to other DRK-12 projects on how they could better serve English learners, what would you tell them based on what you've learned in your work? Our research highlights the importance of providing ELs with multiple opportunities to engage in discourse-rich science practices. Using visualizations, not only can ELs and their non-EL partners discuss how to interpret and integrate multiple representations of unobservable molecular phenomena (e.g., graphs, animations, and text), they can also articulate their understanding of the content using non-linguistic resources (e.g., models, actions with technology). We also found that automated feedback on student-generated representations, such as models and explanations, can provide additional, timely support to help ELs refine their ideas and further engage in discourse with their partners.

What’s a pressing issue or question that you think the field needs to address for English learners in STEM? How can we best identify and meet the unique science and language needs of diverse groups of ELs who attend English-dominant classrooms? How can we design effective, real-time automated feedback to support ELs’ science learning when using visualizations?

Key Challenge: The pressure on teachers serving linguistically diverse students in high-need middle schools presented a major challenge. In particular, teachers had little control over their schedules since district mandates to raise test scores superseded local decisions about pacing and materials. To help alleviate some of the concerns teachers presented, we included them in the design process and carefully aligned our materials to the topics they would be teaching. We also collaborated with experienced teachers, who had previously participated in our project, to provide novice teachers with on-site planning and scheduling support.

Product(s):  Coming soon! Collaborating with science teachers, we have developed an interactive modeling tool that helps linguistically diverse students trace the flow of energy through a simple food chain (sun -> plant -> human) at the molecular level. Our tool allows ELs and their non-EL partners to visually represent their ideas about energy flow while supporting them in integrating textual descriptions into their visual models. Furthermore, our modeling tool provides students with automated feedback based on specific concepts represented in their models, including written and video hints, content-related challenge questions, and scores. This model is currently being tested and will be disseminated once finalized.

Design Technology and Engineering Education for Bilingual English Learners (DTEEL) (NSF #1503428)DTEEL

PI: Rebecca Callahan | Co-PI: Richard Crawford
Grade Level(s): K-5
Target Audience: classroom teachers; informal education programs
STEM Discipline(s): Engineering

Describe your project: Project DTEEL is a K-5 engineering curriculum designed with English learner students in mind. DTEEL capitalizes on bilinguals’ innate problem solving advantage and develops students’ oral and written language proficiency with a wide variety of open-ended design challenges and challenging problem solving activities.

How does your project support English learners (DLLs, ELLs, Bi/Multilingual Students) in STEM Education? The DTEEL curriculum is designed provide all students with a rigorous sequence of activities to develop language skills through problem solving skills with real materials. DTEEL is designed to capitalize on bilingual EL students’ strengths as problem-solvers (Bialystok & Majumder, 1998) through linguistically engaging STEM instruction. Lessons allow students to also develop teamwork skills and an appreciation for differences and talents, as well as a critical appreciation for the human thinking that has created technology to solve problems. Engineering and language development intersect in productive ways when students' design and problem solving actually results in the emergence of previously unforeseen challenges, prompting more discussion and creativity. It is our hope that the DTEEL approach to rigorous problem solving processes will support bilingual EL students’ overall achievement and timely exit from EL programs, ultimately improving their opportunities to learn STEM effectively.

If you were giving advice to other DRK-12 projects on how they could better serve English learners, what would you tell them based on what you've learned in your work? Alignment to the individual state’s content area standards is incredibly important with respect to any content-based ESL instruction. While our program is aligned with the NGSS standards K-5, and many of the TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills) for the same grade span, the state has not adopted engineering as part of the science (or math) curriculum, leaving the teachers to feel incredible pressure about working with the materials during either science or math instructional time.

What’s a pressing issue or question that you think the field needs to address for English learners in STEM? Access to rich academic core, especially open-ended inquiry. When EL students do have access to STEM content and instruction, far too often it is delivered in the form of facts to memorize. Open-ended, challenging design problems and solutions will only help to develop oral and written English proficiency, critical thinking skills, and the ability to navigate new questions and contexts.

Key Challenge: The state’s overwhelming focus on testing and accountability limited teachers’ comfort in enacting new or open-ended inquiry. The idea that more than one end product could be ‘correct’ or acceptable proved much more challenging than initially anticipated. Although this appears to reflect on the audiences, it proved to be a challenge for us in identifying a school site with which to work, and engaging the teachers in the paid training outside of work hours.

Product(s): Project website (for full materials, lesson plans, handouts, course guides, etc. use the password: DTEEL)

Language-Rich Inquiry with English Language Learners through Biotechnology (LISELL-B) (NSF #1316398)LISELL-B

PI: Cory Buxton | Co-PIs: Allan Cohen, Martha Allexsaht-Snider, Zhenqiu Lu
Grade(s): 6-10
Target Audience: Science teachers and ESOL teachers, multilingual students, and students’ families in two school districts in the Southeastern U.S. characterized by rapidly increasing linguistic and cultural diversity.
STEM Discipline(s): Biotechnology as it applies and is integrated into various life science, physical science, and career & technical education courses in middle and high school.

Describe your project: LISELL-B works collaboratively with teachers to revise, test and refine a pedagogical model and professional learning framework to support students’ language development, cultural sustenance, and knowledge building through science with a focus on supporting and challenging multilingual learners. We study teachers’ engagement in professional learning and subsequent enactment of project practices.

How does your project support English learners (DLLs, ELLs, Bi/Multilingual Students) in STEM Education? The LISELL-B project supported English learners by allowing us to better understand the interactions between science and engineering practices and disciplinary language practices for all students and especially for multilingual students. Our research led us to propose new models for integrating these practices and to confirm the value of new frameworks for professional learning to prepare science teachers to more equitably support all of their students, including English learners. The LISELL-B project included capacity building for classroom teachers and future researchers to pursue related questions that are critical for meeting the changing goals of science teaching and learning with a changing student demographic. Our analyses also suggest lessons that can be disseminated about the potential benefits of bilingual constructed response assessments. We found that student responses often contained useful pedagogical information beyond what could be extracted from rubric-based scores. Thus, assessments that are more educative for teachers and students can push systems to be more equitable and coherent in meeting the needs of all students, including English learners.

If you were giving advice to other DRK-12 projects on how they could better serve English learners, what would you tell them based on what you've learned in your work? Serving English learners well requires connections to and deeper understandings of students’ families and communities. We know that families have everyday science and math knowledge and STEM-related interests, but for groups that are under-represented in STEM, this knowledge and these interests are rarely leveraged to support students’ pursuit of STEM educational pathways. We need to do better at this.

What’s a pressing issue or question that you think the field needs to address for English learners in STEM? There is continued debate about academic language – what it is, what it is good for and if it even exists in ways that are not specific to a given discipline. We need a clearer understanding of how the language of each discipline does specialized work and what, if any, role there is for a focus on general academic language.

Key Challenge:  A key challenge in our work is supporting teachers in developing new ways to think about the language of science (written and spoken) that balances simplifying the language to increase accessibility for multilingual learners while maintaining the specificity and precision for which the language of science has developed over time. It is common to tell teachers of multilingual learners to “simplify the language without simplifying the ideas” but it is much harder to do this in practice than may first appear to be the case.

Theoretical Framework: In the LISELL-B project, we have worked to bring together two frameworks that we believe can be combined in generative ways for thinking about how to both challenge and support multilingual learners in the secondary science classroom: Actor Network Theory & Systemic Functional Linguistics.

We use the Actor Network Theory (ANT), developed by Bruno Latour (Latour, 1999; Latour, 2005; Latour & Woolgar, 1979), in our work to describe how teachers learn to support multilingual students in learning science. Recognizing that humans and nonhumans (e.g., the objects in a laboratory or curriculum materials in a classroom) shape and influence how meaning is made, ANT focuses on how actors come together in the work of making meaning. While not originally used to support the goals of broadening participation in STEM, ANT has been combined with other theories such as embodied knowing (e.g., Jones, 2013) to study how networks are constructed to either enhance or constrain efforts to broaden STEM participation (e.g., Buxton, Harper, Payne, & Allexsaht-Snider, 2017). Embodied knowing happens when students are kinesthetically engaged in the learning process. Bringing together embodied pedagogies and ANT can help us understand how to shape interactions to improve meaning-making—for example, how to get teachers to engage students in more open-ended inquiry.

Systemic functional linguistics (SFL; Halliday & Hasan, 2006; Halliday & Matthiessen, 2004) posits that language, in the process of being used, develops for specific kinds of meaning-making and includes disciplinary patterns that are needed to accomplish desired communicative goals. Functional-language approaches support students in learning to make strategic language choices. A critique of SFL is that it privileges academic language over everyday discourse, which may limit participation of students who have less experience with academic language. To address this critique, we have combined SFL with culturally sustaining pedagogies to propose a culturally sustaining SFL which can better support teachers in valuing the language that students already possess.

Methodology: One methodological innovation in the LISELL-B project was our approach to interviewing multilingual families about what they learned about science, and STEM careers from participating in the project. Initially, members of the research team conducted these interviews with participating families, but responses tended to be short and vague. We revised our approach and created an interview game format with question cards and a process where students and parents interviewed either other. When families consented, we placed a recorder to capture the conversations without the researcher being present. The resulting family conversations were much more substantive and meaningful to the participants while also providing the research team with vastly improved data.

Product(s): The following four publications highlight a range of the work undertaken in the LISELL-B project:

  • Buxton, C. & Caswell, L. (2020). Next generation sheltered instruction to support English learners in secondary science classrooms. Science Education. https://doi.org/10.1002/sce.21569
  • Cardozo-Gaibisso, L., Kim, S., Buxton, C. & Cohen, A. (2019). Thinking beyond the score:  Multidimensional analysis of student performance to inform the next generation of science assessments. Journal of Research in Science Teaching. https://doi.org/10.1002/tea.21611
  • Buxton, C., Harman, R., Cardozo-Gaibisso, L., Lei, J., & Bui, K., & Allexsaht-Snider, M. (2019). Understanding science and language connections: New approaches to assessment with bilingual learners. Research in Science Education, 49, 977-988. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11165-019-9846-8
  • Buxton, C. Allexsaht-Snider, M., Kayumova, S., Aghasaleh, R., Choi, Y., & Cohen, A. (2015). Teacher agency and professional learning: Rethinking fidelity of implementation as multiplicities of enactment. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 52(4), 489-502. https://doi.org/10.1002/tea.21223

LETS Science: Language-Enhanced Teaching in Superdiverse High School Science Classrooms (NSF #2001688)LETS

PI: Minjung Ryu 
Grade Level(s): 9-12
Target Audience: Urban, high school, teachers of linguistically diverse student population
Disciplines/Foci: Science 

Describe your project: The project provides professional learning opportunities for high school science teachers who teach in linguistically superdiverse classroom contexts wherein multiple non-English languages are spoken. We engage teachers in a summer workshop and year-round lesson study that are informed by our ethnographic understanding of the school context.

How does your project support English learners (DLLs, ELLs, Bi/Multilingual Students) in STEM Education? Our participating teachers teach in linguistically superdiverse schools in which multiple non-English languages are spoken in a classroom, individual students are also multilingual, and students’ English proficiency and former education backgrounds vary widely. In our current partnership school, over 65% students are either currently or formerly classified as English learners, and more than 20 different languages are spoken by the student body. In such context, what we prioritize is to understand students’ learning experiences. What we found out in our ethnographic study is that students’ perspectives and needs differ greatly from each other and that their identities as linguistic and racial minority matter in their participation and learning. Based on this understanding, we foreground the importance of flexibility and reflexivity in teachers’ teaching practices. We do not believe that there is one single set of best practices, but a repertoire of (potentially) useful practices that teachers can select and use to meet the specific needs of their students. Thus, our goal is to expand teachers’ capacity to identify students’ needs, choose appropriate pedagogical approaches, and revise their teaching in an ongoing manner.

If you were giving advice to other DRK-12 projects on how they could better serve English learners, what would you tell them based on what you've learned in your work? I would like to highlight the importance of hearing students’ experiences and understanding their perspectives. We tend to reduce the identity of ELLs to students with limited English proficiency, but ignore their complex identities, rich experiences, and critical standpoints. In this study, my team interviewed over 20 students whose English proficiency spanned from level 1 through level 5 (WIDA test score), some of whom we talked with an interpreter. From the interviews, my team learned a great deal about their diverse and unique challenges and strengths. I think understanding the learners is the first step in supporting their learning.

What’s a pressing issue or question that you think the field needs to address for English learners in STEM? Our classrooms are becoming linguistically superdiverse, yet the field does not have adequate knowledge on how to support teachers and students in this changing learning environment. We need more knowledge on multilingual students’ needs and resources for learning and should search for new directions of STEM education in superdiverse societies.

Product(s): Policy, practice and student experience: Teaching and learning science in a linguistically superdiverse setting, to be presented at AERA 2020 annual meeting (see the proposal document).

Project QUEST (Quality Urban Ecology Science Teaching) for Long Term English Learners (LTELs) (NSF #1503519)


PIs: Magaly Lavadenz | Co-PI: Eric Strauss
Grade(s): 4-8
Target Audience: English learners – All contexts
STEM Discipline(s):  Environmental Science, Urban Ecology
Describe your project: Project QUEST is an interdisciplinary project focused on examining science and language learning in Environmental Science for long-term English learners in grades 4-­8. The primary goal of this project was to increase LTELs’ science achievement and engagement in: (1) Urban Ecology, and (2) scientific disciplinary academic language skills.

How does your project support English learners (DLLs, ELLs, Bi/Multilingual Students) in STEM Education? Project QUEST’s impact is significant given that little or no research exists on STEM for long-term English learners (LTELs), a specific subpopulation of English learners.  QUEST included the development of RMTs (resources, models and tools) to impact the quantity and quality of 4th- 8th grade LTELs’ science language and literacy achievement as a result of their teachers’ participation in professional learning.  Using a Transdisciplinary framework, two standards-based, upper elementary/middle school Urban Ecology for English Learner modules were developed to bolster English language and literacy learning by providing access to rigorous STEM content. Development of EL-focused data collection tools such as teacher surveys, student writing and project rubrics, an English learner STEM Career Awareness Inventory and Science Literacy for Urban Ecology Assessment allowed us to measure student and teacher outcomes. Focused on interdisciplinary teaching and learning, the project represented one of the last opportunities for this significantly underserved population of students to exit EL status, attain greater access and exposure to STEM,  and college and career readiness prior to entering high school.  QUEST generated new knowledge about improving LTEL’s STEM skills and achievement while documenting the development of their teachers’ knowledge and skills in delivering high quality STEM education.

If you were giving advice to other DRK-12 projects on how they could better serve English learners, what would you tell them based on what you've learned in your work?  Specific attention to systemic efforts to model, influence and study how DRK-12 project implementation is critical when serving ELs.  Cross-disciplinary teams/roles should be involved in processes and decision making for teaching, learning and assessment for ELs.  Professional learning for teachers of ELs requires the delivery of integrated science, language, literacy, and inquiry-based content focused on research-based practices.  A focus on interdisciplinary teaching and learning for ELs and their teachers allows transdisciplinary communities to engage in and benefit from a focus on content and language instruction that is intentional and responsive to students’ linguistic and cultural diversity and assets. 

What’s a pressing issue or question that you think the field needs to address for English learners in STEM? We need to continue to address the issue of access to STEM instruction and equity for English learners regarding the quantity and quality of science instruction, particularly for students who are long-term English learners (LTELs), or at-risk of becoming LTELs.

Key Challenge(s):  1) Changes in district/school leadership and staff require ongoing communication for successful transitions. This is especially important with partner Los Angeles Unified School District with levels of leadership. 2) Increased costs for teacher professional development in large metropolitan/urban areas require diligent balancing between research costs and professional development costs.

Theoretical Framework: This study enacted the intersections of Urban Ecology with the multiply-aligned cross-disciplinary relationships among the Next Generation Science Standards (2012), the Common Core English Language Arts Standards (2010), and the California English Language Development Standards (2012). Effective science instruction for ELLs provides access to content and simultaneously builds literacy skills (reading, writing, speaking, listening, viewing, and representing).

Our work is guided by Guskey’s Professional Development Design Theory (2005) consisting of five levels: (1) opportunities for participants to acquire knowledge and skills; (2) knowledge and skills needed; (3) organizational supports and changes; (4) instructional practices and student classroom experiences; and (5) student learning outcomes.  In this approach, professional development is designed to be responsive to the needs of teachers of ELLs seeking to improve and increase access and quality of Environmental Education benefit from an action-oriented, community-based approach to teaching and learning. The transdisciplinary approach (Kaufman, Moss, & Osborn, 2003uses Urban Ecology as a branch of environmental science that focuses on the sustainability and interdependence of cities with nature integrated with standards emphasizing language and literacy development using and creating oral and written texts (Bravo et al, 2007). Consequently, this study was influenced by a body of work focused on Urban Ecological Science and ELLs.

Methodology: The strategy for implementing Project QUEST consisted of several components:  (1) development of resources, models and tools to support system and site-level leadership technical assistance and collaboration; (2) identification and development of teachers to support implementation; and (3) sustained, recurring professional development focused on integrated science and language teaching; and (4) classroom observation and coaching. 

Two research questions guided the work: 1. What is the relationship between LTEL’s achievement and engagement in science content knowledge in Urban Ecology (UE) and their teacher’s participation in Urban Ecology professional development?  2. What are the impacts on LTEL’s science language and literacy skills development? 

Teacher participants (n=14) were selected from the participating school site based on a convenience sample of English Language Arts, English Language Development, Science, and Multiple Subject credentialed teachers in grades 4-8.  Teacher and site leaders (n=2) were identified based on the teacher sample. Student participant varied over the project period based on enrolled in project teachers’ classrooms.  In Year 2, 426 students in grades 4-7 participated in QUEST Module 1 Introduction to Urban Ecology (2nd edition).  In Year 3, 288 students participated in QUEST Module 2 (2nd Ed.): Patterns of Urban Land Use.  In Year 4 approximately 120 students participated

Mixed methods analyses of multiple data sources were conducted on teacher data collected. Quantitative (Likert scale) and qualitative data were collected through PD evaluations, classroom observations, a teacher survey, and pedagogic artifacts.We examined the effect of the professional development at Guskey’s fifth level of implementation and Student Learning Outcomes by collecting pre- and post-measures of language and academic growth for CELDT, SBAC ELA, and the Urban Ecology for ELs Writing Assessment. Based on available student data, reclassification rates and growth in English-language proficiency were examined across three years for student participants.  Matched pre- and post-writing scores based on the UE for ELs Writing Rubric were analyzed to determine if there were statistical significant differences between the pre- and post-assessment of each subgroup for each domain. 


Science And Integrated Language (SAIL): Development of Language-Focused Three-Dimensional Science Instructional Materials to Support English Learners in Fifth Grade (NSF #1503330)


PIs: Okhee LeeCo-PI: Lorena Llosa
Grade(s): 5
Target Audience: Urban, 5th grade, all students including English learners
STEM Discipline(s): Physical science, life science, earth science, space science, engineering

Describe your project:  We developed SAIL (Science And Integrated Language), a yearlong fifth-grade science curriculum aligned to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) with a focus on English learners.

How does your project support English learners (DLLs, ELLs, Bi/Multilingual Students) in STEM Education: Our project embraces the perspective that science classroom communities of practice provide environments that promote both science and language learning. Students are engaged in making sense of the natural and designed world. As they build on each other’s ideas and co-construct science understanding, they engage in interactions that promote language use. ELs can carry out sophisticated science and engineering practices, such as constructing explanations and arguing from evidence, through their emerging English. They also bring with them a vast array of cultural and community resources that help them make sense of the natural and designed world. The role of the teacher is to provide opportunities for purposeful communication that are supportive of both science and language learning and to value ELs’ contributions for their meaning rather than their linguistic accuracy.

If you were giving advice to other DRK-12 projects on how they could better serve English learners, what would you tell them based on what you've learned in your work?  Contemporary approaches to science learning and language learning with all students, especially ELs, highlight functional use. In science learning, while traditional views focused on individual learners’ mastery of science content, contemporary views focus on students making sense of phenomena and designing solutions to problems as scientists and engineers do in their work (knowledge-in-use). In language learning, while traditional views focus on individual learners’ internationalization of vocabulary and grammar, contemporary views focus on students using language for a particular purpose in social contexts (language-in-use).

What’s a pressing issue or question that you think the field needs to address for English learners in STEM? Contemporary approaches to science learning and language learning offers both opportunities and challenges. As science/STEM and EL education communities embrace contemporary approaches, the education system needs the capacity to implement these contemporary approaches in the classroom.

Product(s): The research team developed four units that constitute a yearlong fifth-grade curriculum with a focus on English learners. The first unit, “What happens to our garbage?,” addressed structure and properties of matter in physical science and introduces an ecosystem in life science. Through rigorous external reviews by expert panels, Achieve, Inc. awarded the SAIL garbage unit the NGSS Design Badge, which is the highest rating for NGSS-aligned curriculum units. This unit is one of only two elementary school units that have been awarded the NGSS Design Badge. It is also the only unit focused specifically on ELs. The garbage unit and supplementary materials are available on the Achieve website, https://www.nextgenscience.org/resources/grade-5-sail-garbage-unit. For more information on SAIL's publications and presentations, visit https://www.nyusail.org.

SciMath-DLL: Designing and Testing a Professional Learning Model for Preschool Teachers to Support Young Children's Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math Learning, with Supports for Dual Language Learners (NSF #1726082)SciMath-DLL

PI: Alissa Lange
Grade Level(s): Pre-K
Target Audience: Preschool teachers in an urban setting with a large percentage of children identified as Hispanic
STEM Discipline(s): Primarily math and science, with links to technology and engineering

Describe your project: The SciMath-DLL professional learning model supports preschool teachers' STEM teaching for all children, including dual language learners. The model has interactive workshops, individualized coaching, and professional learning communities. The aims are to positively impact, 1) teachers' attitudes, beliefs, and confidence, 2) quality of STEM teaching, and ultimately, 3) outcomes for children.

How does your project support English learners (DLLs, ELLs, Bi/Multilingual Students) in STEM Education? Our model (described above) included current research about how best to support DLLs in general and in the context of STEM activities. Our emphasis was on STEM teaching and learning, as best practice in STEM overlaps significantly with best practice in supporting DLLs. We want science experiences to be hands-on and minds-on, with children learning by doing (for example, discovering for themselves how objects made of different materials behave in water). These experiences allow children to participate independent of English proficiency. We also provided educators with information and resources for working with DLLs in particular. For example, one strategy to ensure DLL children can participate fully in science experiences who are at the non-verbal stage of English language acquisition is to ask them questions that do not require a verbal response, such as, "Can you point to the object that is floating, floatando?" We emphasized that children speaking another language is a strength, rather than a limitation. We translated all of our activity plans and workshop slides into Spanish, and included key vocabulary in Spanish for all model lessons, which was the dominant language spoken in the districts in which we worked. Our work was innovative because it included educators as co-designers, and because it combined issues of supporting STEM teaching and learning with issues of supporting DLLs in preschool. 

If you were giving advice to other DRK-12 projects on how they could better serve English learners, what would you tell them based on what you've learned in your work? Ensure your project team includes multiple staff who are experts in second language acquisition and who are or have been educators with such classroom experience. 

What’s a pressing issue or question that you think the field needs to address for English learners in STEM? A pressing issue for supporting young DLLs in STEM is advocating for strengths-based classroom activities that are designed to be fully accessible for DLLs and to thoughtfully engage with families from diverse backgrounds about STEM. 


Additional Resources

Taking a Closer Look at DRK-12 ELL Work from 2016 to 2019

  • Videos featuring ELL Work
    Several DRK-12 projects focused on English language learners created videos about their work and presented videos in the STEM For All Video Showcases from 2015-20. View videos.

Q&A: Project Perspectives from 2011

The National Science Foundation's Discovery Research Program has a rich portfolio of ELL projects, focused on science and mathematics education. A Spotlight on this topic was first created in 2011 to highlight the work of these projects through short interviews and Q&A.

Reading List