According to a recent report by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, the population of English learners in schools has grown to about 4.6 million — or about 9.4% of the school age population — and these students need to have equal access to STEM learning opportunities to avoid underrepresentation in the workforce, EdSurge reports.
English learners often are interested in STEM and can comprehend the concepts, but their access to rigorous instruction is often limited by the assumption that they must achieve a certain proficiency in English before they can participate, even though hands-on learning opportunities often require fewer English skills and may even enhance English learning.
The report recommends seven steps education leaders and policymakers can take to ensure better STEM opportunities for English learners: evaluating current policies, tools and strategies to determine their impact on ELL access to STEM; establishing and identifying current obstacles to STEM participation; providing the necessary tools to educators; creating high-quality STEM curriculum suited for ELL students; tapping into local support networks for ELL students; designing assessments that consider ELL needs; and reviewing accessibility and accommodations for assessments.
The report from the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine highlights that not all educational activities are language-dependent. Some forms of instruction — such as demonstration and experimentation — can encourage English learning in context and at least allow students to “gain a sense” of concepts even if they don't understand all the details in the lesson. Those details may need to be supplemented through later instruction adapted to their learning needs.
The biggest obstacle, the committee noted, is often teachers’ lack of preparation in being able to provide the kinds of opportunities that make STEM learning more accessible to English learners. This need may be addressed through professional development on the topic.
Another recent report also reveals the general slow progress that English learners are making in education because of the challenges they face. Based on 2017 data and produced by the Office of English Language Acquisition (OELA), it noted, “While ELs have experienced some small gains in reading and mathematics proficiency nationally as well as increases in on-time high school graduation rates, their performance still lags far behind their non-EL peers.”
The assessment results examined in this report vary from state to state and depend greatly on the kinds of accommodations made for English learners for those assessments. These results indicate that continued work is needed in developing ways to improve these outcomes.
Because STEM learning is core to many new technologies and jobs in the workplace, it is especially important that schools learn how to connect students with this material earlier, and in a more meaningful way. The inclusion of hands-on activities benefits all students, as does collaboration with local community partners who can help bring STEM learning to life. However, STEM instruction for English learners also requires collaboration between ESL teachers and curriculum administrators, especially when it comes to the development of a STEM vocabulary that helps make such instruction more accessible.
Social-emotional learning also plays a role at making students feel more a part of the school community and learning experience overall. English learners generally want to become more involved in school activities and adapt to the culture. Inclusion in experimentation activities and involvement in community collaboration encourages this. They also generally have a strong motivation to succeed academically so they can build a better life for themselves and their families. Strong STEM instruction provides better opportunities to do just that.