6 ways to support multilingual learners in STEM

6 ways to support multilingual learners in STEM

Key points:

STEM education brings benefits to all students, especially multilingual learners (MLs) whose primary language is not English.

STEM can help with English language development by allowing students to engage with language in a variety of ways. The hands-on nature of STEM learning also makes concepts and vocabulary easier to grasp, and makes learning fun. 

Following are several strategies and tips that can help make learning more engaging and productive for MLs–or any student–in STEM.

1. Provide a concrete context for new vocabulary.

Part of “doing STEM” means learning to speak the language of STEM. Each discipline comes with its own vocabulary. It includes unique terms, like exponent and atom, and everyday words with specialized meanings, like mean or table.

For MLs, grappling with STEM terms while also navigating a new language can make it extra challenging. Native English speakers can struggle, too. Regardless of home language, students who don’t understand terms such as numerator or denominator, for example, might start to think that fractions are “too hard” or that they’re “just not a math person,” despite their ability.

Teaching vocabulary words within the context of a lesson–rather than as a list to be memorized–can help students understand a word’s meaning and its application, which makes STEM feel more accessible.

  • Whenever possible, students’ first exposure to new vocabulary should include a hands-on experience. Beginning a lesson with an experiment or interactive experience provides context for both the language and the content students will learn. 
  • Be sure to explicitly teach words that have multiple meanings in English, e.g., base, bond, code, engineer, mass, model, range, volume, and odd and even.
  • Give students opportunities to talk with each other to practice using their new vocabulary. This helps them explain and reinforce their understanding, and make a personal connection to the terms.
  • Provide convenient access and repeated exposure to essential vocabulary. Create a classroom word wall for the year or interchangeable walls that stay up for a unit. Have each student create vocabulary cards or a STEM notebook they can reference.
  • A variety of other tactics–such as drawings, pictures, manipulatives, sentence frames, short videos, physical activities, and games–can also be used to help students learn vocabulary.

2. Connect with real-world experiences.

Connecting STEM to the everyday world–e.g., showing how chemical reactions affect food texture and flavor, or how geometry and climate impact local building design–can make STEM come alive and make abstract theories more relatable.

  • Be open and curious about students’ cultures, and engage them with experiences that are familiar. Use foods, holidays, games, or other meaningful references during lessons.
  • Ask students about their interests and incorporate those into word problems or activities.  
  • Choose visuals and manipulatives that are relevant to students’ life experiences.
  • Work with students to develop projects about issues that concern them in school or the community.

3. Utilize visuals and technology.

The use of visual aids and technology can also help make complex STEM concepts more approachable and understandable.

  • Use visual supports–such as drawings, graphic organizers, diagrams, charts, graphs, flashcards, and images from the everyday world–to explain concepts.
  • Utilize digital curricula that have embedded language supports and accessibility features such as text-to-speech, adjustable speaking rates, and the highlighting of each word as it is read aloud.
  • Provide access to multimedia tools such as virtual manipulatives, PhET Simulations, digital glossaries, videos, and interactive games to enhance equity and delight digital natives.
  • Use closed captioning for video content to improve comprehension and literacy skills.
  • Help students remember definitions and concepts with visual activities, such as a matching activity. Or create Tarsia puzzles to teach vocabulary or reinforce lesson topics, such as converting and matching fractions, decimals, and percentages.
  • Use physical manipulatives, such as cubes, tiles, dice, or even food, to turn abstract concepts into concrete visuals.

4. Give students opportunities to communicate their STEM thinking.

Students from different backgrounds often have their own ways of participating and learning. A flexible, inclusive approach can help ensure that all students feel involved and have opportunities to excel.

  • Create classroom climates that are inclusive and supportive so MLs feel comfortable taking risks with language and with STEM.
  • Instead of yes or no questions, ask questions that encourage students to express their thinking. Be sure to provide adequate time for MLs to formulate their thinking and their response in English. When they reply, focus on the content of their ideas, and refrain from stopping them to correct their English.
  • Use prompts and sentence frames, designed for different language proficiency levels, to guide student responses. Another way to help MLs learn to express their STEM thinking is to model formal language while revoicing their contributions.
  • Create activities that allow MLs to participate without the pressure of speaking in front of the whole class. Solicit choral responses, or pose questions that can be answered with nonverbal responses such as a drawing or a thumbs-up or thumbs-down.
  • Research shows that visualization contributes to knowledge formation for learners. Having MLs create their own visual explanations, rather than relying solely on verbal and written explanations, can help them learn complex concepts and systems. It can also reveal misunderstandings or gaps in their knowledge.

5. Encourage collaboration and peer support.

Group work, projects, and activities allow students to interact with and learn from each other. They also give MLs a chance to practice English in an authentic way.

  • Use small groups to discuss and solve problems. Group students with a mix of languages and skills so MLs can practice speaking and hear other students using STEM vocabulary and the English language.
  • Use partner talk to boost comprehension. Pair MLs with native English speakers, or let them pick their own partners. Sometimes it’s beneficial for students to pair up with someone who speaks the same home language for better comprehension.
  • Think-pair-share is another approach that allows students to think independently, discuss their thoughts with a partner, and share with the class. It gives MLs time to process and reflect on new information, and contribute to class discussions.

Empowering MLs with STEM

The examples above illustrate ways to keep the rigor in STEM while making the content more accessible to MLs and all learners. There are also many other methods and tools educators can implement to scaffold or personalize instruction to meet learners’ needs. With high-quality STEM experiences, MLs can develop the problem-solving, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration skills they need to succeed, no matter which path they choose when they graduate.

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