Making Science Easy for ELLs

***This post is a re-post of my article on the ESL Best Practices Blog.***
If I asked you what is the hardest subject to teach to English language learners (ELLs), what would you say?
Most teachers would definitely say science!
But what makes science so difficult for ELLs? Lee and Buxton (2013) have an answer:
“ELLs frequently confront the demands of academic learning through a yet unmastered language without the instructional support they need” (pp. 37-38).
In this post, I will discuss strategies that can help address each of these difficulties.

Academic Learning

Academic learning refers to what students will learn about science. In many cases, the best way for students to learn science is not to be taught science, but to experience science.

Strategy 1: Hands-on Learning

Hands-on learning, where students actually do science, can help ELLs with both content and language growth. However, most teachers see one huge barrier with hands-on learning- supplies.
Rafe Esquith, author of Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire, recommends science kits from Delta Education. He particularly likes Delta for their unit kits, which provide the teacher with everything to run engaging lessons and hands-on science activities for an entire unit, not just one experiment.
You may be thinking, “That’s great! But who’s paying for it?” If you district or school does not have funds for science supplies, crowdfunding sites such as are a great place to find funds. I personally know many teachers who have had success getting supplies through crowdfunding.


Language can be a barrier for ELL students in all subjects, but science offers particular challenges with highly-specific vocabulary that is rarely used in daily life. Therefore, it is important that teachers spend time explicitly teaching the vocabulary of science.

Strategy 2: Teaching Vocabulary in Science Class

It is often helpful to teach vocabulary at the beginning of a unit. This gives students the language tools they need for the science lesson.
But what should vocabulary teaching include? Here are a few suggestions.

  1. Student-Friendly Definitions– The Longman Dictionary usually provides the most student-friendly of all dictionaries, but teachers will still want to customize these for their students.
  2. Graphical Representations– A picture is worth a thousand words, right?
  3. Weekly Activities– Vocabulary activities should be used throughout the unit to help solidify the words for the students over time.

If you want to become a vocabulary-teaching pro, I highly recommend reading Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction. The book provides a week-long template for teaching vocabulary with many great activities students love.

Instructional Support

Instructional support is what helps students go from their current level to the next level up. Sometimes students struggle to understand the dense concepts of science. This is where graphic organizers can help.

Strategy 3: Graphic Organizers

Graphic organizers are a great way for students to visualize and keep track of their science learning. There are many different types of graphic organizers such as Venn diagrams, t-charts, mind maps, and many more. The one you choose depends on what your learning objective is.
The internet is filled with graphic organizers for science instruction. has a page with their Top 10 Science Graphic Organizers, and Teachers Pay Teachers is overflowing with free graphic organizers for science.


When teaching science to ELLs, it is important to keep in mind academic learning, language, and instructional support. The three strategies presented here can help you address these challenges in your classroom.
However, these strategies are just the beginning. There are many more strategies that can help address these areas and make science learning easy for ELLs.
What strategies do you use in your classroom for academic learning, language, and instructional support?
Share in the comments section below!

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