Academic Discourse in the NGSS Classroom

NGSS is arriving in classrooms all over the country, and my science teacher friends are left with a lot of questions as they head into next year: What does effective NGSS implementation look like?  Are my students ready for the rigor?  How do I support my English Language Learners to meet these demands?

I took some time to research Science and Language for English Language Learners in Relation to Next Generation Science Standards with Implications for Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Mathematics (let me fall down the internet rabbit hole so that you don’t have to!), because like anything that impacts my students, I wanted to know what was coming. I walked away surprisingly hopeful that NGSS will be good for English Language Learners.  

Here’s why:

  • All science is language-intense. Every content area has its own discourse structures, domain-specific vocabulary, and text structure.  Because of this, all science teachers are language teachers.  All students need to be explicitly taught to use these features in the science classroom.  Giving consideration to this while preparing means that teachers can be intentional about showing students how use to the “language of science.”  And learning how to speak the “language of science” means EL students are also learning how to speak English.  Let’s think about what this means for teaching vocabulary:
  • Examples of domain-specific vocabulary (or Tier III vocabulary) include words such as microscope, mitosis, and cell.  These words require concept development, such as visual representations, diagramming to understand relationships between words, and lots of examples.  Tip for planning: Ask yourself, “what is the domain specific vocabulary that students need to know and understand in order to demonstrate understanding of this Learning Objective?” and plan out how you can be developing students’ conceptual understanding of these words.  
  • Once you have identified these words, think about the general academic vocabulary students will encounter in your lesson, such as interpret, observe, and characterize.  These words also need to be explicitly taught, but can be taught as you move through the lesson.  By looking at the morphology, synonyms, and antonyms of these words, students will be better able to negotiate the use of these words not only for the purposes of science, but in other academic settings.  Tip for planning: run your text through Achieve the Core to get a sense of the academic words that your students will encounter in your lesson, specific to grade level.
  •  The Scientific and Engineering Practices promote student interaction.  One of the most important aspects of how humans acquire language is that there needs to be a purpose for communication. Science teachers give this communication purpose when they design learning activities for students that ask them to do tasks such as Engage in Argument from Evidence and Obtain, Evaluate, and Communicate Information.  Talking and writing about science promotes language learning across the board because students are interacting with content in meaningful ways.  For example, when students are asked to Engage in an Argument about the use of Stem Cells in Research, they will likely be asked to complete research, speak with classmates, and share their findings with evidence to support their argument.  Along the way, they will be using vocabulary and discourse structures specific to this task, but for a purpose.  The purpose of communication is to make meaning, and so without the reason for communicating in the first place, students will not internalize their newly acquired vocabulary. Tip for Planning: Support student interaction with sentence frames using the discourse structures of science.  Click HERE for a free resource.


  • A focus on creating models allows students to show what they know while they are still acquiring vocabulary.  One of the keys to differentiating for English Language Learners is to make sure that we give them an opportunity to demonstrate understanding of content separate from language.  Just because a student hasn’t fully acquired all of the vocabulary to explain mitosis verbally doesn’t mean that they don’t understand the concept.  Asking students to create models allows them to demonstrate their understanding without a lot of words.  For example, if you ask students to create a model of how the nervous system interacts with another body system, students can build language by drawing the model and the arrows, and using sentence frames and a vocabulary bank to present it to the teacher and the class.  Intentional grouping would also be of great benefit to an EL student durning an assessment like this; speaking with a proficient student would support them in formulating their explanation. It is still a cognitively demanding task that scaffolds their use of language.  Tip for Planning: Ask yourself how to support students in demonstrating understanding of complex concepts in ways that are appropriate for their proficiency level.  


Obviously, this does not mean that a newcomer student that arrives in a secondary science classroom will be a proficient English speaker by Winter Break.  The suggestions provided are not a comprehensive strategy to differentiate for all levels of English proficiency.  But hopefully some of these points put NGSS into a different perspective and illuminate some of the possibilities for supporting all students in your own classroom. English Language Learners will greatly benefit from rigor that is coupled with strategic use and support of scientific language in the classroom.  This is the kind of environment where they will most thrive and their language skills will see tremendous growth.  


What questions do you have about serving EL students in your science classroom?

Take me to resources that help my students Think, Speak, and Write like a scientist!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s