Tips for Teachers and Classroom Resources

Making STEM Courses Attractive for ESL Students

By Alisa Bates, PhD

Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, or STEM, courses are designed to keep students at the forefront of the global conversation and innovation. Supporters of this type of emphasis in education believe that American students must be strong in these areas of study if the United States is going to remain a leader in the global economy.

Many students and teachers find themselves in multicultural classrooms where a few students may still be learning English. Teaching an ESL STEM class can be a challenge. Convincing the students to be engaged with this technical and often very difficult science math curriculum can have practical implications, depending on the level of English of the students. The students are also often most concerned with their English learning, and may not be as invested in learning STEM subjects. Others may be embarrassed when they do not understand something and be reluctant to ask for help. To be successful, teachers need to find ways to make the subject matter interesting and the student engaged. Teachers should remember that no two ESL students are the same. They have varying abilities in English, different levels of education in their home countries, and may speak native languages that have some similaries to English or none at all. All of this must be taken into account when teaching ESL STEM courses.

Teaching science and technology

One of the common difficulties that plague ESL students in the science and technology classroom is the vocabulary. When teachers begin units, the vocabulary is often used with little introduction and without very many references. This can make it a special challenge for these students. To help create reference points for students, there are a few activities that can be approached

  • Assign basic literature related to an upcoming unit to offer the ESL student the opportunity to familiarize themselves with the basics of the subject before the unit begins
  • Use basic projects, such as labeling diagrams, to introduce the vocabulary in a stress free way that can also serve as a reference throughout the unit
  • Find online resources for the student to use that can help illustrate concepts through other platforms such as videos, slideshows, or interactive diagrams

These techniques will help the ESL students feel more confident as they approach the new science unit and consequently more engaged.

Teaching technology

Technology affects a large part of everyday life for most of the population. By taking the technology concepts being learned and finding ways to related them to the daily lives of the students, including the ESL students, the teachers can make the material much more attractive. For example, ESL students often use programs such as chat rooms and online translators to help with their English learning. The more teachers can incorporate these concepts into the lesson, the more involved these students will become.

Teaching mathematics

The professionals who developed the Common Core Standards explain that ESL students should be able to participate full in a math classroom, even before their English is completely fluent. Since the vast majority of cultures use the same number system, the students should be able to follow along closely with the material written on a board or textbook, even if they do not understand all of the written text. Teachers can help with this transition by finding creative ways to explain concepts, such as gestures or relations to real world events, and also taking the time to write out each step they are teaching on the board, rather than doing some minor steps orally.

When teachers set out to help their ESL students be successful in the STEM classroom, they have many tricks, techniques, and methods to help them grasp the material right alongside their native English speaking students. ESL students may be bright, but when they are overwhelmed by language difficulties, remaining engaged in technical classrooms can be difficult. By using some of these techniques, teachers can go a long way to helping the students to remain interested and engaged. Whatever methods the teacher decides to employ, however, the most important aspect is always remaining available to assist and guide the students. When the teachers are available to help the students when questions arise, the students can remain confident and can keep up with the rest of the class.

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