Science and EAL in the elementary school

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Over the past few weeks, I’ve become more involved in Science in Year 6 through observations and cover needs. This is a welcome development for me as in my previous school I had the chance to support EAL learners in KS3 and KS4 Science lessons. I worked along some excellent Science teachers and through our collaboration I learnt a lot, not just about supporting EAL learners, bult also about science in general. I thoroughly enjoyed my time in those lessons, and I learnt alongside the learners I was working with.

Classroom desk and drawn blackboard of chemistry teaching general view

As a high school student, I was not very good at science. It didn’t help that at the time I only had the option for single sciences. I took Physics and Biology for 3 years and Chemistry for 2. I did not excel at any of them, but Biology was the hardest by far. It was taught in English and I was an EAL learner.

When I was asked to cover a Science lesson in the middle of Science week, I was excited. When I had to plan the lesson, though, I started panicking slightly. It was a cover lesson, not co-teaching! Luckily, I could rely on the guidance of my colleagues to fill in the gaps in my scientific knowledge. I even posted on LinkedIn about this, and I received so many supportive comments and messages. It was lovely to see the online community reaching out. Thanks everyone!

As I later found out, the lesson I planned was going to be used by other Year 6 teachers for their Science classes, so the pressure was really on. Here is how it went!

Class profile

Our Year 6 cohort has a high percentage of EAL learners with varying degrees of need. About 15% of the year group is receiving immersion level support, which means that they are new to English, early acquisition or developing competence. They have 1 EAL lesson every day, where they work towards language learning targets with an EAL teacher. Many of these learners also receive two extra lessons of support after school, as well as small group or one-to-one intervention sessions by EAL teachers and LAs. The majority of these learners need a lot of support to be able to access the curriculum.

There are also some intermediate and advanced level EAL learners in these classes (about 10% each). While advanced learners don’t receive regular support other than differentiation in class, intermediate EAL learners are streamed for English once a week to attend an intervention lesson taught by an EAL teacher and are supported by LAs in mainstream lessons.

The plan

Since this was Science Week, Year 6 had 3 science lessons instead of the usual 1 per week. (We teach IPC which also involves Science, but Year 6 have 1 Science class taught by a High School Science teacher once a week.) The lesson that I had to teach was the last in the series, so the objective was for learners to reflect on their experiment from the previous lesson (using red cabbage juice as an indicator to determine if a solution is acidic or alkaline) and also on their learning during the week.

I decided to start the lesson by a retrieval practice exercise, Group it!, where learners had to look at keywords and categorise them. This is an activity that we use a lot in Elementary EAL at my school. Magda Blake, my colleague, shared this activity with us at a CPD session and I have been a big fan ever since.

The idea is simple: display a set of keywords that you want the learners to remember or that you need to pre-teach and ask them to put them into categories. You have options:

  • You can tell them what categories you want (parts of speech, number of syllables, meaningful pairs/groups, etc.)
  • Let the learners decide on the groups and explain their decisions. This often leads to interesting discussions.

I chose keywords they had been using throughout the Science lessons and gave them the choice to decide what categories they wanted to use. Some learners chose to put the words in groups by number of syllables, which resulted in a lot of useful pronunciation practice. Others tried to group them by meaning and use them in sentences. This showed me whether they understood the concepts.

Students were working on mini whiteboards in pairs. I was monitoring closely and asked clarifying questions or elicited information in small groups. Nobody put the words into groups by their parts of speech, so we quickly touched upon this during the open class feedback stage. At the end of this stage, I was confident that the learners knew how to use these words in context and that they could recognise them in writing and in speech. The open-ended nature of the activity helped me differentiate it for all the learners: I could easily challenge learners by asking them to justify their choices, while I could just as easily provide scaffolding by clapping out syllables or getting learners to translate the words into the L1s if needed.

After this lead in activity, I asked the learners to work in groups and discuss the experiment they carried out in the previous lesson. This allowed all learners to remind themselves of what they did and observed, while I could ensure that EAL learners have located the relevant pages in their books to support them with the next stage.

The next stage was writing a conclusion that sums up the experiment. On the board I displayed some sentence frames that all learners could use if they wanted to. I had also prepared a gap fill version of the conclusion with some of the keywords left out. I had enough of this printed for all of the EAL learners but initially I only gave them to learners who are new to English. As I was monitoring, I saw some other learners (some intermediate EAL and some non-EAL) struggling with the writing, so I handed out some more of the gap fill texts. During the open class feedback stage, I showed them the gap fill text and we checked the answers together. This way, the learners who wrote their own texts could still edit their work if they wanted to before they had to hand it in.

I prepared some simple questions as an Exit ticket task. Learners were working in pairs answering them. The first two were fact check questions, while the last two were reflection questions about Science week.

My reflection

Hot feedback: Although the lesson aims were achieved, some learners were not able to answer the fact check exit ticket questions without support. I felt that I could’ve spent more time activating schemata in the beginning of the lesson. All EAL learners managed to complete the gap fill version of the conclusion, although new to English and early acquisition level learners needed my support.

Cold feedback: I now feel that the quality of learners’ notes of the experiment made a big difference in their ability to reflect and conclude. If I taught the lesson again, I would incorporate images into the Group it! task so that it is more efficient for EAL learners, and I would spend some time going through the experiment step by step before learners write the conclusion. I would also make an open cloze version of the gap fill to provide further scaffolding to those who need more than the sentence starters but not as much as the gap fill.

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