Communication and Language Strategies for the Science Inquiry Classroom (Part 2)

Professional Books: Science Instruction for ELLs

Good science starts with a question. Using inquiry science, children discover answers to their questions in the same way that scientists do — with experiments, predictions, observations, and conjectures.

In this excerpt from Chapter 4 of Becoming Scientists: Inquiry-Based Teaching in Diverse Classrooms, Grades 3-5, Rusty Bresser and Sharon Fargason offer ideas for choosing appropriate language support strategies in the science classroom that will match students' proficiency levels. The activities described are designed to engage students in the practices outlined in the .

Providing Support

The support that we provide English language learners during inquiry science falls into three categories: strategies that make content comprehensible, strategies that provide opportunities for communication, and strategies that provide support for communication.

Making Content Comprehensible

The strategies that make science content comprehensible include ones that Sharon uses to help students access key vocabulary:

  • the use of illustrated vocabulary banks
  • highlighting cognates
  • recasting science terms or using familiar synonyms
  • providing realia and concrete materials

Sharon also uses gestures or acts out words, phrases, and directions when teaching. She uses lots of visuals such as graphic organizers and pictures that help children "see" concepts. In addition, she modifies her teacher talk by slowing down and articulating clearly when giving directions, emphasizes key words, and avoids idiomatic phrases or slang. In addition to bridging new vocabulary with students' native languages, Sharon always taps their prior knowledge and experiences so that they can build on their current knowledge about science topics. All of these strategies help English language learners access science content because they allow them to visualize what the teacher is saying and connect what they are learning to what they already know.

Providing Opportunities for Communication

Sharon uses several different talk formats to provide students with the chance to discuss their learning:

  • Whole-class discussions provide a forum in which there are many opportunities for the cross-pollination of ideas.
  • Small-group formats create a safer environment in which more students get a chance to talk (See Figure 4.1).
  • Partner talks give English language learners an even safer place to share ideas and rehearse what they might report in a whole-class setting.

Figure 4.1: Student Conversation

Professional Books: Science Instruction for ELLs

When partnering students during pair-shares, Sharon sometimes places a student with advanced proficiency with a beginning-level English learner so that language modeling or translation can occur.

At other times, she places two students together who are at the same proficiency level in English so that more talk can happen. Sharon might even let the students choose whom they want to pair-share with.

To begin a science discussion, Sharon might ask a question and then give students sufficient time (sometimes up to ten seconds) to gather their thoughts and generate a response before talking to the group or to their partner. Providing wait or think time is crucial for all students, but particularly for English language learners, who may need more time to think before sharing.

The use of wait time and the different talk formats provide opportunities for all English learners to think and then talk about their learning. But what if the students don't have the language (in English) to say something? This is when it is important for the teacher to offer structured support to assist students in communicating.

Providing Support for Communication

Sharon uses a variety of strategies to help her students communicate their science thinking and practice new words and phrases they are learning (see Figure 4.2). Some strategies are easy to use and take little time or effort. For example, Sharon might ask for a thumbs-up or thumbs-down after asking a question such as "Do you agree or disagree with Carlos's hypothesis?"

Eliciting nonverbal responses supports English learners because the responses help teachers check for understanding without requiring students to produce language. English learners can participate and show that they understand a concept, or agree or disagree with someone's ideas, without having to talk. This is especially important for students whose comprehension of English is more advanced than their ability to speak the language.

Another easy strategy to use that supports students is having them give a choral response or echo in unison a new word or phrase. For example, when introducing the phrase conductor of electricity, Sharon had the class echo the phrase to her several times. This strategy exposes students to new vocabulary and serves as a model for correct pronunciation, syntax, and grammar. It also gives them practice using the language of science.

During a science lesson, students are exposed to many important concepts and ideas. These ideas may come from the teacher or from another student in the class. One strategy that holds students responsible for listening is having them repeat or reword someone else's idea. Although repeating may not seem like a high-level task, it is much more active than simply listening to the concepts as they are presented. Rewording encourages students to express a new concept in their own language, a language we know they understand. Students can repeat or reword statements made by the teacher or by other students. The teacher can also repeat or reword statements made by students to emphasize or question information (Bresser, Melanese, and Sphar 2009).

Figure 4.2 Strategies, Activities, and Tools to Support English Learners

Makes Content Comprehensible

Provides Opportunities for Communication

Provides Support for Communication

  • Provide illustrated vocabulary banks Modify teacher talk
  • Gesture/act out words, phrases, directions
  • Highlight cognates
  • Recast science terms
  • Use concrete materials/realia Connect to prior learning
  • Use graphic organizers

Use talk formats:

  • Partner talk
  • Table talk
  • Whole-group discussion

Use wait time

  • Elicit nonverbal responses
  • Elicit choral responses
  • Have students repeat or reword
  • Use sentence frames/prompts Differentiate questions

Sentence Frames and Prompts

Two effective tools that help students say something about their learning are sentence frames and prompts. Prompts can be oral or written and are used as sentence starters. For example, during an inquiry lesson on energy, Sharon showed the class a video and then had them talk and write about what they learned. She provided the following prompts to jump-start their thinking and writing:

I learned…
I wonder…

In another lesson on UV beads, Sharon provided the following prompts to help students formulate testable questions:

What if…?
I wonder…?
What will happen if…?
Is it possible to ____________?

Sentence frames serve a variety of purposes. They provide the support English language learners need to fully participate in science discussions, serve to contextualize and bring meaning to vocabulary, provide a structure for practicing and extending English language skills, and help students use the vocabulary they learn in grammatically correct, complete sentences (Bresser, Melanese, and Sphar 2009).

During a unit on energy, Sharon wanted the students to make a prediction about a pair of students' hypothesis. To help them make a prediction, she provided the following frames. The first frame is appropriate for beginning-level English learners. Sharon differentiated the second frame for intermediate/advanced English learners. Notice how the second frame includes the conjunction because. This prompts the learners to explain their thinking further but requires more language:

I predict ___________ hypothesis will work/won't work.
I predict ___________ hypothesis will work/won't work because __________.

During an investigation of UV beads, Sharon offered the following frame to help students describe the beads:

The beads are ____________ and made of ____________.

To create sentence frames, Sharon first thinks about what key vocabulary students will need to know and understand. She then thinks about the purpose for using language. Will students be using vocabulary to make predictions about a hypothesis? Draw conclusions about an experiment? Compare minerals? Describe an energy source? Ask questions about UV beads? Explain how they got a toy car to move?

Sharon tries to anticipate what students will say, and this guides her in creating the frames. When structured appropriately, sentence frames are flexible enough to be useful in a variety of contexts and open enough to allow students to give us their own ideas. These frames allow students to use the key vocabulary terms and put together complete thoughts, thoughts that can be connected, confirmed, rejected, revised, and understood. What's important is that the teacher model using the frames and give students practice so that they will actually use the frames during instruction.

The chart in Figure 4.3 includes examples of sentence frames for different topics in science and for different language functions or purposes for using language. The examples also include frames that are differentiated for different levels of English proficiency: beginning and intermediate/ advanced.

Supporting Students at Different Proficiency Levels

As mentioned, the students in Sharon's class represent a wide range of proficiency levels in English.

Native and advanced English speakers

For example, John and Felicia are native English speakers who require little linguistic support during inquiry science, although sentence frames for advanced proficiency levels can push them to use more sophisticated language.

Carlos and Benito are at advanced and intermediate levels of English proficiency, respectively, and with some added grammatical support, are able to perform all of the language functions that John and Felicia can. For example, when Carlos makes a grammatical error, Sharon models correct usage and has him repeat it to her. These two students, like everyone in Sharon's class, also need exposure to and support for using academic terms during inquiry science. They also need practice talking like scientists, since the language they are expected to use during inquiry is more formal than the English they use on the playground.

Students who are native English speakers, and those who are at advanced and intermediate levels of English proficiency, are able to respond to more open-ended questions during inquiry. For example, Sharon might ask, "What do you think will happen when we use the lemon to make a battery?" This is a good question for native English speakers and those at advanced and intermediate levels of proficiency. But a response to this question requires a lot of language for beginning-level English learners. These students must produce so much language just to structure their answer that they might choose not to answer at all.

Beginning English speakers

Jackie, Alejandra, and Dao are at the beginning stages of English language development and need lots of visual support. They understand more English than they can produce, and the questions that Sharon asks them are sometimes different from the questions she poses to students at more advanced levels. For example, to improve his participation, Sharon might ask Dao a question that requires a nonverbal or one-word response. (For example, "Do you agree with Carlos's hypothesis?" or "Thumbs-up if you agree with Carlos's hypothesis.")

Sharon might ask Dao a question that requires only a physical response. ("Point to the materials that make the bulb light up" or "Can you show me how to make the bulb light up?") Sometimes Sharon will build the answer into the question. ("Which works better, the potato or the lemon?")

Figure 4.4 shows what students at different levels of English proficiency can do, what support they need, and the types of questions that are most effective to ask.

Figure 4.4 • Support for Different Proficiency Levels in Englis


What They Can Do

Support They Need

Types of Questions to Ask


One-word or nonverbal

responses, can identify, match, categorize, and produce simple sentences

Lots of visual and

manipulative support

Questions that elicit one-word,

nonverbal, or physical responses, build the answer into the question



Can describe, explain, define,

retell, compare and contrast, justify, and more

Grammatical support

More open-ended questions,

questions that model the structure of an answer

When thinking about support for students at different proficiency levels, it's important to hold high expectations for all students. Just because a student is beginning to learn English doesn't mean he isn't good at science! And just because a student at the beginning stages of English language development typically struggles with responding to open-ended questions doesn't mean we can't ask them. When Sharon asks an open-ended question, she first asks everyone to think about it. If individual students need a more structured or modified form of the question in order to respond, she will provide one. Sharon's goal is for everyone to improve and move forward in their English language development, and she uses inquiry science as a context for them to do so.

Equitable Access For All Students

During inquiry science, Sharon wants all of her students to have access to science content. If language is a barrier to learning, she provides the necessary support. Without support, many of her students might not be able to participate in science discussions or express their learning through the language of instruction. Providing explicit language support is critical to equitable access.

Lisa Delpit frames this idea in her book Other People's Children (1999). She urges educators to explicitly teach those forms of language that will enable students to succeed in school and actively participate in their learning communities. Therefore, when we expect the students in our diverse classrooms to contribute their ideas during science discussions, we need to make sure that they have the skills in English to do so.


Bresser, R. and Fargason, S. (2013). Becoming Scientists: Inquiry-Based Teaching in Diverse Classrooms, Grades 3-5. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers. Reprinted with permission.


Bresser, Rusty, Melanese, Kathy, and Sphar, Christine. 2009. Supporting English Language Learners in Math Class. Sausalito, CA: Math Solutions.

Cloud, Nancy, Genesee, Fred, and Hamayan, Else. 2009. Literacy Instruction for English Language Learners: A Teacher's Guide to Research-Based Practices. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Delpit, Lisa. 1999. Other People's Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom. New York: The New Press.

Hill, Jane, and Flynn, Kathleen M. 2006. Classroom Instruction That Works with English Language Learners. Alexandria, VA: Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Next Generation Science Standards Writing Team. 2012. Next Generation Science Standards. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Rosebery, Ann S., Warren, Beth, and Conant, Faith R. 1992. "Appropriating Scientific Discourse: Findings from Language Minority Classrooms." Journal of Research in Science Teaching 33: 569-600.

Wright, Wayne E. 2010. Foundations for Teaching English Language Learners: Research, Theory, Policy, and Practice. Philadelphia: Caslon.


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