English Language Learning (ELL) students face many hurdles in education but the one that many educators overlook is the lack of exposure to content related knowledge. Many ENL students struggle to make connections and may have little scientific specific background knowledge to add to class discussions. Many have not been exposed to learning opportunities like zoos, aquariums, museums, and science themed television shows. This makes the task for the science teacher frustrating at times because a lesson that goes smoothly for general education students may not function correctly for an ELL class, even if language hurdles have been considered. It is only with the wisdom of failure that I can say I often many times can compensate for these shortcomings in advance with a minor tweaks to the structure of the laboratory experiences I present to a group of ELL students. Co-teaching allows me a professionally experienced counterpart to throw my ideas off to avoid these pitfalls and make the educational experience highly effective for both my general education students and ELL students.
The true glory of ELL co-teaching is that language acquisition can be done during experiential style lessons. The two styles complement each other nicely. While student’s minds are engaged in experiences, which transcend language barriers, the ENL teacher is able to insert scaffolded language experiences that aid in the development of academic content vocabulary. By pre-teaching vocabulary that students will encounter during their experiences, and using that vocabulary during the experience, students come out of the lessons with a higher level of language development and ownership. It is not uncommon, when done correctly, to witness ELLs favoring science content vocabulary over other common language, even their native language. Many times science says it best. One word, such as symbiosis, summarizes an idea much easier rather than saying, “a relationship in which two organisms engage in”. Students begin to see the value in academic language and create a passion for learning vocabulary.
If you are still reading this then you most likely agree with the potential impact of experiential learning in combination with language support. But you, like many ENL educators, may be wondering, how is this possible? It is, not only possible, but possible to do an effective lesson in 46 minutes. I know, because my co-teacher and I do it, almost every day. Let me provide you with an example.
Human Body: Digestion
An example that explains how this can be done is a lab I titled, “Urine for a Treat”. Students have previously reviewed the digestive system and the vocabulary that goes with it. The classroom is then transformed into a human body by structuring desks in a design pattern to represent the path food and water take inside the body until it exits, from the mouth to the anus/urethra. Students role play being different parts of this digestive system, completing simple tasks when food and/or water come to them. For example, the small intestine student will remove glucose from the mixture they receive passing that to the blood students walking by, while passing the solid waste and water on to the large intestine. The large intestine student will remove the solid waste and give that to the rectum student for processing while transferring the water to the kidneys, which the kidneys will later mix in liquid wastes obtained from blood students. Teachers act as overseers to the activity and insert manageable amounts of content vocabulary. After each round, students reflect on what they did then switch jobs. By the conclusion of the activity, students can recall the function of the majority of organs and appreciate the complexity of the human body. Vocabulary and language was improved upon through activity during student to student interactions and teacher prompts. Lessons like this take an impossible amount of new vocabulary words, ten or more, and make them accessible, because students became the vocabulary words. The experience has therefore become the language.
In conclusion, the more collaboration between co-teachers constructing meaningful experiences around content for students, with vocabulary development, the higher the success will be in scientific language acquisition and content understanding. It is the goal of all ELL teachers to transcend cultural and socioeconomic barriers by providing meaningful and engaging activities, and experiential learning is the tool to achieve it. And for a general education science teacher, a trained and motivated ENL co-teacher is the person to help make it happen.