Helping Secondary Students Develop Scientific Literacy

Secondary ELL teachers who focus on content-based instruction quickly become masters at adapting vocabulary. With a little familiarity of the subject and the assignment’s goals, they can turn a seldom-used word into something more conversational faster than most people can say “thesaurus.”

But this ability becomes much less useful when it comes to science. Many of this subjects’ terms have only one set definition—for example, what’s a synonym for “photosynthesis”? Looking up the words often leaves the students frustrated, especially when they can’t understand how one part of the process relates to another. There comes a point where we worry that simplification will lead to an inadequate explanation, which would not only take our students further from their science curriculum’s goals but also give them the wrong information.

Here are some ways to make your science instruction seem more like a replicated success and less like an experiment:

1. It’s All Greek to Everyone. Most science terms have roots in Greek or Latin words, and learning these can introduce students to broader concepts (Herr, 2007). Breaking down the above example of “photosynthesis” gives us two separate morphemes: photo (light, as in photograph); and “synthesis,” which will come up again when students learn about synthetic substances. In my experience, it sometimes helps to teach the parts of words, including the prefixes and suffixes, when teaching, reviewing, and assessing vocabulary words.

2. Make Prior Knowledge Applicable. Many science teachers incorporate real-world examples, but your ELL students may not understand the reference or the context. With a little investigation and more than a little effort, you may be able to adapt the concepts to something the students can understand. That may mean coming up with a new example, which is okay as long as the scientific principles are there. I worked with a teacher who tried to explain heat reflection and absorption by talking about a car left out in the sun, but one Guatemalan student’s family didn’t own a car. She had an easier time understanding the concepts when I related them to clothes and color—people in tropical countries don’t wear black often for a practical reason.

3. Structure Classroom Talk. When planning your class, be sure you don’t lecture too much. It’s important to take time to engage the students in the process (Balderrama & Diaz-Rico, 2006). Ask them about their personal experiences. Have them describe the charts and cycle organizers. Just make sure you’re not the teacher who lectures with lots of big words and no chance for them to keep up.

4. Think Like a Scientist. Students may have a better grasp of scientific concepts if they consider the thought processes behind them, especially if they’ll have to do lab experiments (Chamot & O’Malley, 1994). That means students should try to predict the outcome of something, see why it’s important to collect data, and ask about or identify a problem. One priority here is to make sure that they understand how making mistakes is often a part of the process—even the best scientists do it, and so does everyone who tries to learn a new language.

Science can seem like one of the most complicated subjects in school, and students may shut down when they hear those multisyllabic Greek/Latin words or see detailed diagrams of microorganisms. The main objective for the English language teacher is to give the students a sense of confidence about completing this work, and I’ve found the most effective way to do that is to connect the concepts to their lives.


Balderrama, M. V., & Diaz-Rico, L. T. (2006). Teaching performance expectations for educating English learners. Boston, MA: Pearson.

Chamot, A. U., & O’Malley, J. M. (1994). The calla handbook. New York, NY: Longman.

Herr, N. H. (2007). Internet resources to accompany the sourcebook for teaching science. Retrieved from

About Nathan Hall

Nathan Hall
Nathan Hall, MA TESOL, MS Education, lives in Pottstown, PA with his wife and two daughters. He has been involved in ESL since he volunteered as a tutor in 2001, which inspired him to leave the field of journalism for education. He has since taught English language learners in a variety of settings ranging from community programs to colleges as well as in several different types of middle schools and high schools. He is currently an ELL specialist at Achievement House Cyber Charter School in Exton, PA.
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