Learning science — and English

In California’s wine country, elementary schoolers are learning science and developing English proficiency at the same time, reports Ed Week. The Exploratorium, a San Francisco science museum, has partnered with the Sonoma school district.

A pilot project was launched in 2008 at El Verano Elementary, which has the highest poverty rate and the highest number of English Language Learners. With a federal Investing in Innovation grant, the project has expanded to all five of the district’s elementary schools.

Victoria Silberman’s 1st graders sit on a brightly colored carpet, staring attentively at the whiteboard.

“Where have you seen worms?” asks Ms. Silberman.

In my backyard, in the garden, in the dirt, her pupils respond. She writes those words on the board.

“What do worms need?” she asks.

Dirt. Shelter. Water. Food.

On a recent day, pupils first learn the words to talk about the long brown-and-gray earthworms slithering in Petri dishes on their desks before they’re allowed to observe them. Seeing, hearing, and discussing the science helps them with the vocabulary to label drawings in their science journals and talk about what they and their partners find examining the worms when the full class reconvenes.

Most schools don’t teach content in English till students test as proficient. Often, ELLs are pulled  out of science or social studies lessons to learn English skills in isolation, says Lynn Rankin, who runs the project for the museum. They fall farther and farther behind.

“There seems to be the misperception that children have to have a certain level of language proficiency to understand science, but we have a different view,” Rankin added. “Science provides a perfect opportunity for language development,” she said, “because students want to make sense of their experiences and communicate their ideas. Science instead provides a context for learning language.”

Students are more interested in science, teachers say. The state tests science in fifth grade: 59 percent of the school’s fifth graders test as “proficient,” up from 37 percent in 2008. Scores also are rising on the state’s English-language-proficiency tests.

Under pressure to raise reading and math scores, many elementary schools spend little time on science. Forty percent of California elementary teachers spent 60 minutes or less on science instruction a week, reports WestEd. In addition, 85 percent of teachers “received no science professional development within the past three years.”

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