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The double language barrier: ESL students in the science classroom

5 June 1997


The purpose of this qualitative study was· to answer three research questions: 1) What strategies are currently being used by mainstream teachers in a science classroom to help ESL and LEP students?; 2) What strategies are the students using to help in. their attainment of scientific concepts when faced with the "double language" barrier?; and 3) What role are student attitudes about science playing in their concept attainment and what role does the language barrier have in developing these attitudes? My research was formulated after personal observations and investigation into . the prior studies of ESL students in the science classroom. Much of the prior research pointed to specific strategies that instructors could use in the classroom and to the special needs of ESL students.

This study took place in a suburb of Portland, Oregon in two high schools within the same school district. The participants were students from three particular class settings: General Biology, Biology Survey, and 9th Grade Integrated Science. Information was gathered through direct observations, student surveys, student interviews, and a collection of student work. Parent permission forms were completed and filed for the students involved in the interview and whose work was collected. All names have been removed to protect the participants' rights to privacy and anonymity and pseudonyms have been used when describing particular student actions and responses.

After collecting the data over a period of five months, it was sorted and organized into usable information to answer each research question. After presenting the chosen data ·in a topical fashion, it was analyzed and applied according to which research question it supported. This not only allowed the strategies of both teachers and ESL students within the science classrooms to be identified, but also highlighted the role student attitudes play in their level of success within the classroom.

The limitations of the study are examined in a brief manner. The implications of this study for the science classroom teacher are highlighted, as well as specific suggestions given in order to increase the classroom teacher's repertoire of methods and approaches to use with ESL students.


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