National Science Foundation Funds Research on Teaching Science to English Language Learners

The National Science Foundation has stepped forward to assist with efforts to close the achievement gap for English language learners in science and math by funding 32 active research projects in the area.

Julio López-Ferrao, program director of the education and human resources directorate at the National Science Foundation, spoke about the issue at the recent “Prepárate: Educating Latinos for the Future of America” conference sponsored by the College Board. He noted that the NSF’s ELL focus has only developed in the past five years. “How do we do better with English language learners?” Lopez-Ferrao asked. “The National Science Foundation has a mission to promote research of high quality. There is a national problem and other agencies need to jump in the pool.”

So far, the majority of projects focus on Spanish-speaking students, more than half focus on middle-school grades, and the projects usually collect data from at least two school districts. The issues addressed include student learning, assessment, curriculum and professional development.

Lopez-Ferrao said the largest and most successful project so far has been the five-year Promoting Science among English Language Learners, or P-SELL project in Florida led in part by  Okhee Lee. The P-SELL, which offers a elementary school curriculum and teacher professional development, is being used in the Miami-Dade County Public Schools. Lopez-Ferrao said that students in the program performed better on assessments than those not in the program and the achievement gap also shrank.

Another NSF project–this time in Texas– the Middle School Science for English Language Learners or Project MSSELL, led by Rafael Lara-Alecio and Fuhui Tong of Texas A&M University, is examining middle school performance.

The latest results of the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) of eighth-graders showed that English language learners performed far below other student groups in science and have not made progress over the past couple years. ELLs averaged a score of 106 out of 300 points, compared with 137 for all Latino students, 163 for white students and 129 for black students. Proficient is considered a 170.

Are you curious whether there is research under way in your area? The NSF has a searchable database of active research projects  online. If you search under the key words “English language learners”  you’ll find some hits.

Related Links:

– “Grim NAEP Science Results for English Learners.” Learning the Language blog, Education Week.

– Promoting Science among English Language Learners (P-SELL) (Florida)

– Project Middle School Science for English Language Learners (MSSELL) (Texas)

– National Science Foundation: Directorate for Education and Human Resources. 

– The Nation’s Report Card: Science 2011 (NAEP).

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