Do ELs Lack Access to Education in STEM?

I recently came across a report published in 2018 by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine that concluded that English learners (ELs) do not have adequate access STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education in U.S. schools. The report, entitled English Learners in STEM Subjects: Transforming Classrooms, Schools and Lives, is the result of a consensus study from educators from universities across the United States.

ELs Underrepresented in STEM Careers

The report emphasizes that “all children, irrespective of their home culture and first language, arrive at school with rich knowledge and skills that have great potential as resources for STEM learning” (p. 95). It goes on to say that ELs are woefully underrepresented in STEM careers, and this affects their potential earnings in the future. One barrier to ELs’ participation in STEM learning is that many school districts assume these students cannot understand the demanding STEM content learning before becoming proficient in English. This belief is unfounded, according to the authors of the report. Another barrier to STEM learning for ELs is that content-area teachers are not trained to differentiate their instruction in STEM subjects.

Access to STEM Careers Needs to Start at a Young Age

The report concentrates more on high school barriers and solutions than it does on ELs in the lower grades. I agree that there is a real lack of access to STEM at the high school level, and that is a crucial problem that needs to be solved. But I don’t think we should focus just on older ELs. One of the report’s points makes a real impression on me. The authors of the study emphasize that much of STEM education isn’t only accessible through the reading of dense text. It is comprehensible through hands-on experiential learning.

When I taught elementary ESL, I did so by teaching English through content. I taught a lot of science, and participation in the school’s science fair was part of my curriculum. However, I never thought about explicitly linking the students’ interest in science to thoughts about a future career, although I did often call my students “scientists.” This link needs to be made explicitly to students, and teachers need to think of them as future mathematicians, scientists, and engineers.

Bring Elementary Science Lessons to Life

Here are a few ways to bring those elementary science lessons to life:

  • Establish classrooms where students learn cooperatively and can teach each other. ELs need to opportunity to regularly communicate with each other.
  • Bring in local community members or parents who can bring science to life and show how it affects their work. Local meteorologists, doctors, veterinarians, and other professionals can help ELs understand how careers relying on STEM can be connected to what they are learning in school.
  • Use realia, photos, experiments, and hands-on lessons to make content comprehensible to ELs and allow them to participate in the life of the classroom.

As I said before, ELs have rich knowledge and experiences that they bring to the classroom. Teachers need to show that they value this experience by incorporating it into classroom practice. STEM learning is not culture free, and teachers need to value “other ways of doing” during STEM instruction.

At the very beginning of my teaching career, I was teaching fourth-grade ELs long division. Samir, a student from India, told me that his grandfather had taught him a different way to do long division. His grandfather’s method was much easier for the students to understand, and I had Samir teach it to the other students in the group. Once the students felt successful, it was easier to transition to long division as it is taught in the United States (a necessity because teachers want students to show their work).

Read English Language Learners in STEM Subjects Online

The English Learners in STEM Subjects report from the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine is an excellent document that demonstrates a real understanding of the academic and social-emotional needs of ELs. This document can be read for free online (there is a cost if it is downloaded). It is well worth the time that it takes to read it, and is filled with research and best practices.


How do you incorporate STEM into your teaching? Or how do you plan to incorporate it in the future? Please share in the comments, below.

About Judie Haynes

Judie Haynes
Judie Haynes taught elementary ESL for 28 years and is the author and coauthor of eight books for teachers of ELs , the most recent being “Teaching to Strengths: Supporting Students Living with Trauma, Violence and Chronic Stress“ with Debbie Zacarian and Lourdes Alvarez-Ortiz. She was a columnist for the TESOL publication "Essential Teacher" and is also cofounder and comoderator of the Twitter Chat for teachers of English learners #ELLCHAT.
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One Response to
Do ELs Lack Access to Education in STEM?

  1. Mrs. Robin L Poling says:

    Dear ELT professionals at TESOL,
    Of course we all use and teach with and through technology in today’s blended and hybrid E.S.L. courses. It’s difficult to keep American English literature in curriculum for all levels of E.S.L. learners though, and we still have to teach the value of the Humanities to have students for such classes. Certainly, as English language teachers this must be a high priority–particularly to develop interest beyond the instrumental requirements for language. But STEM selections can be included in reading material options and selections, particularly where the student can choose whatever they like to read such as in ‘pleasure reading’ or where there is an open topic selection. However, students have a high interest in literature by non-native authors/writings of their own countries and others, and this is not a bad doorway into ‘fine American and English’ literature generally. They need to see people like themselves in literature and how people make adjustments and develop careers in a new land. Also, STEM reading is available online a lot, so it’s easy to include occasionally for optional reading projects.
    When we use biographies, we can include those of scientists, engineers, technology people, and mathematicians as well as teaching about famous authors. This is frequently done with short bios in business texts for example, and we may wish to borrow from such sources occasionally. A lot of minorities choose business often if they haven’t a clearer idea what else they might want to do. Business interest is alive and well among the international community generally, but students can always benefit other students by sharing such an interest, involvement, etc. High school business related programs such as helping run the student store etc. are good ways to learn a bit more too. Those are hands on experiential learning programs of practice. There are many ways to include STEM subjects, and it is an emphasis in many places in the U.S., but we will have no Humanities or English literature students if we don’t focus on this in courses. If we want to make good citizens too, we need to emphasize the importance of learning history and geography also. A deep knowledge in these areas makes for good citizenship preparation. Then there is the actual teaching of the material for the citizenship test and interview. These are often taught together with English or History, as well as separately for students. Don’t forget cultural adjustment too–students come in new to the U.S.A. at many ages and levels throughout their K-12 or college/adult years.

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