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Science: Creating Shadows, Learning English

By Norrell Edwards, CEI Intern. With the American population becoming more diverse with each passing generation, with each year really, the issue of teaching English language acquisition should be at the forefront of our minds. This is an educational concern of particular interest to me.  As a university writing tutor I have frequently encountered ESL students and felt overwhelmed by the difficulties these students face. When students lack certain foundational aspects of language and reading comprehension, it is incredibly difficult for them to then hone their skills in a specific field or discipline. By the age of 18 or 22 many of their grammar mistakes have solidified and there is little support at the university level to help.

Science to Improve Language. One innovative California school district is tackling the problem of language acquisition in their elementary schools and doing so by using science! Talk about hitting two birds with one stone; this under represented population is receiving special attention and encouragement in both English and STEM.

The Sonoma Valley school district, with the aid of the Vadasz Family Foundation, the Sonoma Education Family Foundation, and the Exploratorium has created a curriculum that blends science and English learning. Featured in article from Education Week, this project is brought to light in better detail.  In Sonoma Valley, students in one third grade class better grasped the concept of adverbs such as ‘closer’ or ‘ farther’ through an experiment creating shadows. Adverbs as well as prepositions are frequently the most difficult to master components of any language. Even as a native speaker it’s incredibly difficult to explain why something is ‘in’ rather than ‘at’ or the difference between ‘beneath’ and ‘underneath’ because it is based on how speakers’ of the language conceptualize space and/ or time.  Through these hands-on science experiments, students naturally learn complex concepts in vivid ways.

Reasons to Understand, Communicate, and Elaborate. The Sonoma- Exploratorium’s project emphasizes group work where students discuss their findings, answer questions posed by their teacher, and create their own questions. Due to their collaboration about these projects, students have a reason to understand, communicate and elaborate. Through the process of critical thinking, have a meaningful experience with language with better results than what is obtained with a more traditional approach of memorizing grammar constructions. Sonoma’s approach fosters true understanding as well exposure to varying vocabulary. The Sonoma Family Education Foundation’s website reports that they’ve seen an 85% increase in cognitive language proficiency in third graders, as well as a 22% increase in student’s scoring average or proficient on the CST (California Standards Test) in science.

Ultimately all knowledge and understanding begins with a question. How might you integrate language and science learning in classrooms in your schools? Elementary school is the perfect time for young minds to acquire another language. Linguist theory generally agree that children, up to the age of 13, have the most access to universal grammar, the grammar that underlies the foundation of all languages. With sufficient exposure and practice they can easily absorb a new language. However, to learn certain ideas they must be presented with the occasion to do so. Will you create an occasion for them?


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