Oct. 18, 2018


New Report Provides Guidance on How to Improve Learning Outcomes in STEM for English Learners

WASHINGTON - A shift is needed in how science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) subjects are taught to students in grades K-12 who are learning English, says a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Educators should recognize the assets that English learners (ELs) bring to the classroom and understand that student performance is affected significantly by access to adequate program models and instruction. Opening avenues to success in STEM for the nation’s ELs offers opportunities to students and their families, and confers benefits to society, the report says.

“All students, including English learners, should have opportunities to participate in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics learning,” says David Francis, Hugh Roy and Lillie Cranz Cullen Distinguished Professor at the University of Houston and chair of the committee that wrote the report. “Organizing schools and preparing teachers so all students can reach their full potential in STEM can transform the lives of individual students as well as the lives of teachers, schools, and society as a whole.”

According to the federal definition, an English learner is a student who is aged three through 21; enrolled in an elementary or secondary school; whose native language is a language other than English; and whose proficiency in speaking, reading, writing, or understanding the English language may be sufficient to deny the individual the ability to successfully achieve in classrooms where the language of instruction is English. These students are taught under a variety of different program models - including English as a second language approaches as well as bilingual approaches - intended to support both language and content learning. English learners comprise a diverse and multi-talented pool of learners that is persistently increasing, both in absolute size and as a percentage of the U.S. school population, the report says.

The expansion of students’ English language knowledge is observed in science, mathematics, and engineering classrooms as ELs use language in the service of “doing” and communicating ideas about STEM. Just as each discipline requires that students engage with a specialized body of knowledge and practices, each also requires that students engage in specialized language through which the subjects are presented. The report says that language and content are learned in tandem, not separately or sequentially. Language proficiency is not a prerequisite for content instruction, but an outcome of effective content instruction.

English learners develop proficiency in both STEM subjects and language when they are engaged in meaningful interaction in the classroom with teachers who can support them with content that allows language to develop simultaneously. However, many STEM teachers are not prepared adequately to provide robust learning opportunities that foster simultaneous content knowledge and language development in their classrooms. The report recommends that teachers and teacher candidates should be equipped with the requisite tools and preparation to effectively engage and positively position ELs in STEM learning. Pre-service teacher education programs and providers of in-service professional development should offer opportunities for teachers to engage in field experiences that include ELs in both classroom settings and informal learning environments. Additionally, curriculum developers, educators, and researchers should work together to develop materials and resources that consider the diversity of ELs’ needs and strengthen teachers’ assessment skills to improve STEM instruction and promote ELs’ learning.

Integrating STEM learning with English language learning is possible but may require adjustment to the allocation of budgetary and human resources, the report says. It also recommends that policies, approaches, and resources that have the potential to impact ELs’ access to STEM learning opportunities should be evaluated, including classification of the student, course-taking, classroom instruction, program models offered, professional development, staffing, and fiscal resources.

With appropriate curricular and instructional support, ELs can participate, contribute, and succeed in STEM classrooms. The report provides guidance on ways in which to obtain, strengthen, and maintain these capabilities to achieve development within the education system. The committee that wrote the report views this capacity building as more than the allocation of resources and engagement in improvement efforts; it also requires the re-evaluation of broader policies and practices and concerted efforts to shift them when necessary.

The study was sponsored by the National Science Foundation. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are private, nonprofit institutions that provide independent, objective analysis and advice to the nation to solve complex problems and inform public policy decisions related to science, technology, and medicine. The National Academies operate under an 1863 congressional charter to the National Academy of Sciences, signed by President Lincoln.  For more information, visit http://national-academies.org.

Kacey Templin, Media Relations Officer
Andrew Robinson, Media Relations Assistant
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Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education
Board on Science Education
Board on Children, Youth, and Families

Committee on Supporting English Learners in STEM Subjects

David J. Francis (chair)
Hugh Roy and Lillie Cranz Cullen Distinguished University Chair of Quantitative Methods, and
Texas Institute for Measurement, Evaluation, and Statistics, and
Center for Advanced Computing and Data Systems
University of Houston

Alison Bailey
Professor of Human Development and Psychology
University of California, Los Angeles
Los Angeles

Hyman Bass*
Samuel Eilenberg Distinguished University Professor of Mathematics and Mathematics Education
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor

Cory Buxton
Professor of Education
College of Education
Oregon State University

Kathryn Chval
Joanne H. Hook Dean’s Chair in Educational Renewal, and
College of Education, and
Professor of Mathematics Education
University of Missouri

Marta Civil
Professor of Mathematics Education, and
Roy F. Graesser Endowed Chair
Department of Mathematics
University of Arizona

Christine M. Cunningham
Vice President
Museum of Science

Leslie Herrenkohl
Professor of Educational Studies
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor

Megan Hopkins
Assistant Professor of Education Studies
University of California, San Diego
San Diego

Okhee Lee
Professor of Childhood Education
Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development
New York University
New York City

Judit Moschkovich
Professor of Mathematics Education
University of California, Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz

K. Renae Pullen
K-6 Science Curriculum Instructional Specialist
Caddo Parish Public Schools
Shreveport, La.

Maria Santos
Co-Chair and Senior Advisor for Leadership
Understanding Language, and
Director for School and District Services
Comprehensive School Assistance Program
San Francisco

Mary Schleppegrell
Professor of Education
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor

Guillermo Solano-Flores
Professor of Education
Graduate School of Education
Stanford University
Stanford, Calif.


Amy Stephens
Staff Officer

*Member, National Academy of Sciences