CSI Literacy NZ

Why Science for EL Learners?

Why Science for EL Learners?

Science Study Helps English Language Learners and All Students To Be Better Readers, Writers and Test-Takers – HOW CAN THIS BE?

By Neale Pitches, Chair, Lift Education E Tū

In the 1980s, I was Deputy Principal at Wellington High School. And I was learning first-hand about the brutality of Pol Pot’s Cambodian Genocide. We had a number of Cambodian students in our English Language Learner unit. They were trying to learn English though the fog of loss and trauma, and I felt humbled by their spirit. But one thing I did notice. Their grounding in their first language gave them a foundation in knowledge and language experience that served them well in learning English.

Fast forward to 2020. We have diverse groups of EL learners, refugees and immigrants from many parts of the world in Aotearoa New Zealand. Many of them, too, have faced loss and trauma. Others are here for a new life, and their ability to learn English is vital to their futures.

Here at Lift Education E Tū we create learning materials* for them, and offer support to their teachers. We also develop materials in Spanish for the USA, where many EL learners are Hispanic.

Why Science for EL Learners?

It’s well accepted in the research literature that knowledge of the world, and words, largely determines a person’s ability to read. World knowledge (also called background knowledge) includes understanding the language features as well as the content of what is being read. In this regard, a lot of science language is a puzzle to both EL learners and first language speakers. What matters now is communication and problem-solving skills. As students read about science and engage in scientific experiments, they “practice their problem-solving and English language skills at the same time.” [Mitchell, 2017]

Does Reading Science Texts Help All Students?

What do you think? If engaging with science texts by communicating, problem-solving, and focusing on English language learning helps EL Learners ... will it help all students? As the saying goes, it’s a no brainer! Or in literacy language, that’s a reasonable inference.

Not just Science Texts!

The research on reading in the middle years of schooling is powerful regarding the need for students to read widely across the curriculum – not just science but numeracy, social studies and history, and general informational texts on engaging subjects.

Text Features and Tools That Help Learners

The research is also clear that students need scaffolds as they encounter new subject matter, and new language in middle childhood. The first and most important of these scaffolds is a glossary. Words not in common use should be glossed, and defined in the back of the book or digital publication. Important text features that must also be ‘read’ and understood include graphs, tables, diagrams, illustrations and photographs.

For EL learners the most powerful scaffold of all is an audio recording (or a person reading to them).

It’s Not Rocket Science

While studying and reading about rocket science is a great boost to the literacy performance of EL Learners (and indeed all learners), what I’ve described in this blog is straightforward, and within the power of all of us.

*If you need to complement your current learning materials, here is our portfolio of materials rich in science, numeracy, social studies and history, and general informational texts about the world, all research-evidence-aligned.


Brozo, William G. 2010. The Role of Content Literacy in an effective RTI Program. The Reading Teacher 64 [2]: 147–150.

Brozo, William G., and Kathleen S. Puckett.2009. Supporting Content Literacy with Technology. In Brozo, 2010

Freire, Paulo, and Macedo, Donaldo (2005). “Literacy: Reading the Word and the World”, p.12, Routledge

Marzano, Robert J., and Debra J Pickering. 2005.Building Academic Vocabulary…Virginia, ASCD

Mitchell, Cory. January , 2017. With More Exposure to Science English Learners’ Achievement Soared , Edweek,

Leave a comment: