Blending language development into science, social studies

New research by Oregon State University assistant professor Kathryn Ciechanowski is examining how providing English language development in dual-immersion programs can be reinforced by integrating it into science and social studies curriculum, rather than focusing on it separately from other subjects.

Kathryn Ciechanowski is examining how language skills can be woven into other classroom lessons. (photo: Theresa Hogue)

Kathryn Ciechanowski is examining how language skills can be woven into other classroom lessons. (photo: Theresa Hogue)

Ciechanowski, who teaches ESOL (English for speakers of other languages) and Bilingual Education in the College of Education, has been working with third grade teachers and ELL (English Language Learner) instructors at Lincoln School in Corvallis for more than a year. She is currently assisting them in developing and implementing content for their classrooms that infuses language development into their social studies and science teaching.

“We just finished the science component, and it was amazing,” Ciechanowski said. “I have been blown away with the kids’ ability to use language structures in a really authentic way.”

For instance, when teachers want to increase their students’ use of “ly” adverbs such as ‘slowly’ and ‘carefully,’ they emphasize the use of those adverbs when students learn how to describe scientific experiments.

The students’ attention is captivated by the experiments themselves, so much so that they may not realize they’re expanding their vocabulary and language skills as they work on their science projects.

“It’s so engaging,” she said. “It’s a very natural time to do language development as opposed to the drill and kill method.”

In addition to the dual-immersion (Spanish and English) classroom, Ciechanowski is also working with an English-only third-grade class at Lincoln that has a number of English Language Learners, and an ELL specialist who works with those students on their language acquisition. She is using the same approach in that classroom, and making sure the ELL instructors are part of the conversation.

When teachers are developing their curriculum, they talk with Ciechanowski about what language skills they need to develop and how they can find natural connections to content that provide a rich context for teaching the skills. Because the learning experience is intensified by pairing English language development with other disciplines, Ciechanowski believes the quality level is increased, meaning students are picking up their skills in a shorter time and in more meaningful ways than if they simply sat down with a language skills worksheet.

“It’s amazing how they can pick up and learn language structure,” while immersed in the fun of watching chemical interactions, she said.

Lincoln is the perfect school to watch this development because this school year, the Corvallis School District decided dual-immersion programs should have an integrated English language development component. In the past, students were pulled out of their classes for brief periods to focus solely on English, but Ciechanowski said that previous research indicates that is not the most effect way to ensure students adequately learn English skills.

Ciechanowski has been making audio recordings of students in the classrooms as well as taking digital photos of their work in order to document their progress in language skills. She’s also worked with the teachers to develop tests that give them an indication of how well the integrated approach is working. Because the school year is still in progress, the results aren’t in, but it appears that the students are experiencing growth in their language abilities, she said.

Her research is funded by the Oregon Department of Education, and ideally, the work can become a model for other districts and other classes, even those who do not have a dual-immersion component. Many young native English speakers do not have a grasp of academic English,which can be taught through the language integration process as well.

“This can be done in a normal classroom.”

~ Theresa Hogue

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