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Making STEM subjects accessible for English language learners

English language learners face a unique challenge in science, technology, engineering, and math classes.
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Learning a new language is hard. Trying to learn complicated math and science concepts in a new language is even harder.

With almost five million English language learners in U.S. public schools facing this near-impossible challenge, it is difficult to believe that bilingual science, technology, engineering, and math resources are still not readily available. The rate of high school graduation for English language learners is only 63 percent, almost 20 percent lower than the national average. These students often fall behind in basic subjects due to insufficient language accommodations.

Wendi Pillars, an experienced English language learners teacher from Chatham County Schools in North Carolina, says, “Teachers continue to report that they feel unprepared to work with students who are language learners … even though English language learners enrollment continues to increase annually in most states.”

This issue also causes educators to overlook English language learners who may be candidates for advancement, evidenced by the paltry two percent enrolled in gifted programs.

Even as English as a second language, bilingual, and dual-language immersion schools become more popular, these programs almost universally face a lack of resources.

This is particularly frustrating for Spanish-speaking English language learners, who make up a significant portion of this population. Spanish speakers comprise over half of all English language learners in the U.S., with more than 3.8 million students. In the U.S. today, one of every four public school students is Hispanic — and this number increases daily. In fact, the U.S. is now home to more Spanish speakers than Spain.

Science, technology, engineering, and math subjects are vital to helping students succeed in school and in daily tasks like understanding mortgages and using electronics. The National Science Foundation stresses that “to succeed in this new information-based and highly technological society, students need to develop their capabilities in STEM to levels much beyond what was considered acceptable in the past.” Careers in science, technology, engineering, and math are growing quickly, and typically provide high salaries. It is more important than ever to ensure that all students are receiving quality education, yet English language learners have notably few resources that deal with these subjects.

Fortunately, educators and educational publishers are beginning to address this problem.

There is now a resource designed specifically to help Spanish-speaking science, technology, engineering, and math students learn these subjects.

A set of middle-grade books offers literature-based science and math brain-teasers in both English and Spanish, with easy side-by-side comparison that allows students to develop their language and science and math skills at the same time. Having a resource like this, which clearly explains science and math concepts in a fun, accessible way, can be game-changing for these students.

These books are part of the five-book “One Minute Mysteries” series, written by father-daughter team Eric and Natalie Yoder. They challenge kids to solve real-life brain-teasers using their knowledge of science, technology, engineering, and math subjects.

Previously only available in English, the bilingual edition of the science mysteries book was released last year, titled “More Short Mysteries You Solve With Science! – ¡Más Misterios Cortos que Resuelves con Ciencias!” The second bilingual book was just released in August, this time offering math mysteries, “Short Mysteries You Solve With Math! – ¡Misterios Cortos que Resuelves con Matemáticas!”

Dr. Carmen M. Martinez-Roldan, from the Bilingual Education Program at Columbia University, writes of the book set, “Bilingual materials addressing STEM topics are long overdue. These books give kids the vocabulary and confidence they need to succeed in the classroom.”

For more great bilingual resources, take a look at the websites listed in the sidebar.

It’s important for these books and other bilingual resources to be easy enough to use at home as well as in the classroom. Bilingual resources are especially helpful for kids who speak English at school, but use only Spanish at home with their parents. The development of language skills should be encouraged beyond the school day, for both Spanish speakers learning English, and English speakers hoping to become bilingual.

Bilingual education is not just for English language learners. Many English speakers are discovering the powerful positive impact that knowledge of a second language can have on academic and personal success. Reading and math scores of students in two-way dual-language education are higher than those of monolingual students, regardless of ethnicity, socioeconomic status, proficiency in English, or special education skills. Bilingual children also demonstrate an increased sense of self-worth and identity, and tend to relate to others better than monolingual students.

The handful of websites and books mentioned here fill only a small portion of the bilingual science, technology, engineering, and math resources that this country needs. That being said, it’s an important start.

As educators and educational publishers become aware of the shortage, more bilingual resources will become available and, more importantly, make their way into the hands of students who need them.

Hannah Thelen graduated from Bowling Green State University with a bachelor of Fine Arts in creative writing. She lives in Washington, D.C., where she generally enjoys reading, writing articles or short stories, and drinking too much bubble tea. Contact her at Hannah@PlatypusMedia.com.

The need for bilingual education

• Nearly one in 10 students in U.S. public schools are English language learners.

• The U.S. is home to 52.6 million native or bilingual Spanish-speakers.

• Seventy percent of Hispanic students speak a language other than English at home.

• Students in two-way dual language programs show higher reading and math scores.

• Bilingual adults experience less cognitive decline as they age.

Bilingual resources: Where to begin

These great websites curate quality Spanish language and bilingual resources for parents and educators:

• De Colores: The Raza Experience in Books for Children, http://decoloresreviews.blogspot.com

•¡Colorín colorado!, http://www.colorincolorado.org (For educators and families of English language learners)

• Bilingual Books for Kids: Multicultural Connections y Cosas Hispanicas, http://www.bilingualbooks.com

• Common Sense Media, commonsensemedia.org (List of bilingual & Latino books)

• Goodreads, www.goodreads.com (List of popular bilingual Spanish books)

Updated 5:05 pm, July 9, 2018
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