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Making STEM Subjects Accessible for English Language Learners

Bilingual STEM Resources


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 (ELLs) in U.S. public schools facing this near-impossible challenge, it is difficult to believe that bilingual STEM resources are still not readily available. The rate of high school graduation for ELLs 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 ESL 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 ELL enrollment continues to increase annually in most states.” This issue also causes educators to overlook ELLs who may be candidates for advancement, evidenced by the paltry two percent enrolled in gifted programs.


The Need for Bilingual Education


It is clear that we could—and should—be doing more to support bilingual education, particularly for ELLs:

  • Nearly 1 in 10 students in U.S. public schools are ELLs.

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

  • 70% 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.

Even as ESL, 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 ELLs, who make up a significant portion of this population. Spanish speakers comprise over half of all ELLs 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.


STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) 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 STEM are growing quickly, and typically provide high salaries. It is more important than ever to ensure that all students are receiving quality STEM 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 bilingual STEM resource designed specifically to help Spanish-speaking ELLs learn STEM subjects. A set of middle-grade books offers literature-based science and math brainteasers in both English and Spanish, with easy side-by-side comparison that allows students to develop their language and STEM 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 ELLs.

These books are part of the 5-book One Minute Mysteries series, written by father/daughter team Eric and Natalie Yoder. They challenge kids to solve real-life brainteasers using their knowledge of STEM 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 released in last August, this time offering math mysteries, Short Mysteries You Solve With Math! • ¡Misterios Cortos que Resuelves con Matemáticas! Carmen M. Martinez-Roldan, Ph.D, 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.” 


The layout of the books--with Spanish and English on facing pages--is particularly beneficial for children who speak English at school but Spanish at home. A recent survey shows that approximately 43% of US parents help their children with their homework. However, it is important to remember that not all parents are able to help. In addition to evening work schedules, which prevents some parents from consulting on homework, not all parents speak English well enough to help their children. As a report from the National Research Council reminds us, "A parent's primary language has implications for how involved he or she can be in their child's education. Even a bilingual parent may have trouble with reading comprehension."


This is why the side-by-side layout of the One Minute Mystery books is so beneficial. With English and Spanish on facing pages, parents who are not proficient in English can still help their children work their way through these science and math brainteasers. This is one small step towards closing the achievement gap between ELLs and their native English-speaking classmates.


Bilingual Resources: Where to Begin

  • De Colores: The Raza Experience in Books for Children

  • ¡Colorín colorado! (For educators and families of ELLs)

  • Bilingual Books for Kids: Multicultural Connections y Cosas Hispanicas

  • Common Sense Media (List of bilingual & Latino books)

  • Goodreads (List of popular bilingual Spanish books)

Bilingual education is not just for ELLs. 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.


Do you use any bilingual resources we haven't mentioned here? Please let us know what they are in comments!


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Photo credits: Tech. Sgt. Carlos J. Trevino (U.S. Air Force), Airman 1st Class Valerie Monroy (U.S. Air Force), hepingting (Flickr)


This article was originally posted on SEA Homeschoolers.


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