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Teaching Tips: Language Frames Support Literacy in Science

by Kelly Johnson, Diane Lapp and Maria Grant
January 10, 2012


Daily we are confronted by real-world questions that require an understanding of science concepts in order to be able to function intelligently. Consider these:
  • How should you vote on the “toilet to tap” initiative?
  • How can we avoid a world-wide water crisis?
  • How is our health affected by sodium and saturated fats?
  • How does your favorite song on your iPod affect your brain and your emotions?
Did any of these questions initially stump you? Even if they did, we’re sure that you know how to dig a little deeper into a myriad of resources in order to be able to find answers. This process of digging deeper is analogous to what scientists do when they are investigating a problem. In fact observing, questioning, and experimenting are foundational skills for science investigation at any grade or throughout life.

To the surprise of some, the road to acquiring proficiency in terms of science and engineering practices does not end with these investigational processes. On the contrary, they are the starting points for science as noted in the National Research Council’s (NRC) recently released science framework document.

Investigation or inquiry, the umbrella concept under which these skills fall, should be coupled with the practice of evaluation that includes analyses of any identified or collected data. What results is the development and sharing of theories, models, explanations, and solutions. These practices used by scientists and engineers provide the instructional framework for teachers seeking to foster critical and creative scientific thinking within their students. The process of investigative inquiry is so important that it has been identified as the seventh anchor standard in the College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading:
Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words. (2010, p.10)
To address this standard, students must be provided with instruction that teaches them to dig deeply into multiple sources in order to discuss, pose, and answer questions they confront in their school texts and also in their lives outside of the classroom.

Into the Classroom

Let’s look at how scientific inquiry might play out in an eighth grade classroom where 80 percent of the students are English learners who, along with the other 20 percent of their peers, are learning the language of science. During a science class they are confronted with the following questions for inquiry:
  • How does resonance created by wind affect a bridge?
  • How does center of gravity affect the balance of a building?
  • What role does material strength play in the stability and strength of a building?
  • Who is responsible for structural failure: architects, engineers, construction workers or those that restrict construction budgets? Others?
In the same city, in a first grade classroom we might observe the same cultural mix of students who are at various levels of learning English as an additive language, and those who are English speakers. They too could be engaged in scientific inquiry as they consider, chat, and explore textual resources such as FROM SEED TO PLANT (ROOKIE READ-ABOUT SCIENCE) by Allan Fowler (2001) to answer questions such as:
  • What are the parts of a plant?
  • How are seeds transported?
  • What is the difference between fertilization and photosynthesis?
At first glance, such questions might seem exceptionally challenging for students at any grade; however, with instruction that teaches them how to access, evaluate, and discuss relevant resources, they can effectively master the task of addressing such questions in a scholarly, academic fashion using the science and engineering practices highlighted by A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas (Committee on Conceptual Framework for the New K-12 Science Education Standards & National Research Council, 2011).

Again, consider the real-world questions being posed in each classroom. Are you wondering where the teachers might begin?While the materials would change according to topic and grade level, both teachers would need to provide instruction that supports and also models how to investigate, continually question, evaluate, and eventually report information.

To understand this process more fully, let’s consider how Marcel and his eighth grade class might be supported in approaching the question, “How does resonance created by wind affect a bridge?” Of course, to begin Marcel would need to garner a significant amount of background knowledge and language.

Background Knowledge: It All Begins with Talking and Observing

In order to support both academic and scientific language development, Ms. Saunders began her instruction by inviting students in triads to conduct a gallery walk where they viewed a series of photos illustrating structural failure. Each configuration included one proficient English speaker while the other two had been indentified as having levels of English language proficiency ranging between 1 (beginning) and 5 (advanced) as measured by the California English Language Development Test (CELDT).

Using the suggestions and lessons shared by Jacobson, Johnson, and Lapp (2011), Ms. Saunders designed instruction to accommodate learning for students who were proficient language learners as well as those exhibiting beginning and intermediate levels of English proficiency while sharing a common experience. In this instance, the photos they were investigating included collapsed bridges, buildings with foundations torn away, leaning structures, and fallen balconies. Many of her photos came from these websites:

Link to Photos

http://science.howstuffworks.com/engineering/structural

http://www.sciencefriday.com/blog/2008/05/quakes-collapsed-buildings-forensic-photos/

Next to each photo she had posted language frames (Figure 1) to help students get their scientific conversations started and developed. These frames had been previously shared and practiced orally and in writing, and were also listed on a classroom chart titled, “Let’s Talk about Science.”



Students also kept a spiral notebook titled “Language Starters,” which were categorized generally and also by content areas. Because the students were at varying degrees of language proficiency when speaking English as well as when speaking about scientific topics, Ms. Saunders introduced these sentence and paragraph frames to provide the language and informational structures needed to organize and share one’s thinking.

This activity was not intended to create a sense of shock, but was instead very purposefully designed to foster inquisitiveness and language development; more specifically, it was designed to help students probe and discuss real-world events using a bit of background knowledge spurred by a look at failed man-made structures.

Ms. Saunders realized the lesson purpose was being achieved as she heard snippets of conversation that reminded her of conversations in which real engineers and scientists might engage while viewing and analyzing similar photos.

Marcel: “I’d like to know what materials they used for that balcony.”

Aida: “These structures look similar because of the materials used and the height of each structure.”

Daniella: “I wonder if too much weight caused the buildings and bridges to fall down.”

Javier: “Based on this evidence I know that an earthquake caused this.”

Antonio (a level 1 speaker), smiling and eager to participate, stated, “I agree.”

Because the students had recently been focusing on the eighth grade science standard, “Identifying two or more forces separately that are acting on a single static object, including gravity, elastic forces due to tension or compression in matter, and friction” (California Department of Education Science Standards, 2009), they had, with varying degrees of sophistication, the physics concept of forces at the forefront of their thoughts.

In this example, we focused on Marcel’s teacher, Ms. Saunders. However, if we visited other classrooms, the materials would change but similar investigations could be pursued.

Keep Conversing but Now Let’s Write and Read About It

In addition to using language frames to promote conversation while building background knowledge, Ms. Saunders also guided students to turn their talk into writing. Using a Foldable™, which is an interactive graphic organizer similar to those found at www.dinah.com, students wrote and read their sentences and others their triad members said. At the end of this activity, as each triad checked their written notes, they had a list of several sentences that were well constructed, understood and practiced. These were then used as notes to write and read more detailed pieces.

Language frames or sentence stems used orally and in writing support all students’ attempts to share a structured response that explains, justifies, questions, and claries through complete sentences containing relevant academic and topical information. Language frames enable students to try on the new academic terms and organizational structures of content language while conveying their understanding of the targeted concepts. Students at all levels of language production become contributing, engaged participants.

References

Committee on Conceptual Framework for the New K-12 Science Education Standards & National Research Council. (2011). A framework for k-12 science education: Practices, crosscutting concepts, and core ideas (Prepublication copy). Retrieved from http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=13165&page=1

Fowler, A. (2001). From seed to plant (rookie read-about science). Danbury, CT: Children’s Press.

Jacobson, J., Johnson, K., & Lapp, D. (2011). Effective instruction for English language learners: Supporting text-based comprehension & communication skills. NY: Guilford Press.

© 2012 Diane Lapp, Maria Grant, and Kelly Johnson. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.


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