Supporting ELLs in STEM: How STEM Impacts English Language Learners

ALI Staff | Published  August 12, 2016

Characterized by its hands-on approach, enabling students to tackle real-world problems and develop essential skills— STEM education brings immense benefits to students of all backgrounds, especially those whose primary language is not English.

This dynamic learning experience not only makes education enjoyable and relevant but also equips ELL students with the necessary tools for success in the professional world.

Find out more about the pairing of STEM with English Language Learners.


Students working on STEM project together


What is an English Language Learner? 

In education, we have a lot of terms for students who are learning English. You might hear ELL, ESOL, EL, ESL, or Multilingual Learners (MLL).

They sound similar but are sometimes used slightly differently depending on the setting.


  • English Language Learner (ELL)

This term is common in the US school system but has been replaced by MLL in many settings. It designates students who are still learning English but are not yet proficient English language speakers, readers, and writers.

  • Multilingual Learner (MLL or ML)

This is the term currently used most often to describe students who are learning English.

  • Learner English for Speakers of Other Language(s) (ESOL)

    This label is often used in different countries or in adult learning settings.

  • English Learner (EL)

This one’s short for 'English Learner.' You'll see it in official documents and when talking about policies.

  • English As A Second Language (ESL)

This label is usually used in schools to describe special programs for learning English.


Knowing these terms helps when looking at different programs or teaching strategies for your school district. It's all about picking what’s best for your students.


What obstacles do ELL students face? 

Let's take a moment to talk about the challenges and obstacles that many ELL students face.

It's not just about learning a new language; there are often other things going on in their lives that make education a bit more complicated.

Many ELL students live in poverty, which brings its own set of challenges, like not having access to educational resources at home.

Other students move frequently or have had their education disrupted for various reasons. This can make it hard to get a solid educational foundation and can be especially tough when you're also trying to learn a new language.

On top of this, some ELL students are refugees who have faced trauma in their home countries.

This can affect their emotional well-being and make the educational journey even more challenging. It's crucial to remember these factors when choosing and implementing educational programs for ELL students in your school district.


Can STEM help ELL students? 

STEM carries enormous benefits for all students, especially English Language Learners. Research shows that STEM education can help with English language development.


Because STEM is interactive and hands-on, it allows ELL students to engage with language differently.

Collaboration, a critical part of many STEM lessons, allows students to interact with peers authentically.

This gives ELLs a chance to practice English in a setting that’s a little less intimidating than a full-on English class.

Plus, the hands-on nature of STEM can make abstract concepts easier to grasp, which can significantly help students still learning a new language.

STEM is also interdisciplinary, blending science, technology, engineering, and math. This variety can appeal to different learning interests and styles.

Motivation is an important aspect of learning something new, and this is just as important for students learning a new language as those learning a new subject.

Altogether, STEM provides learning opportunities tailored to each student's interests and needs, making it an excellent strategy for helping MLL students overcome obstacles and succeed in their educational journey.

At Accelerate Learning, we provide many STEM solutions as well as translated Spanish-aligned lessons, activities, and assignments that can be quickly printed or downloaded.

Related reading:

How to support ELL students 

Teachers, schools, and districts should integrate best practices into their programs for English Language Learners, both for STEM curriculum and other types of programs. 


Sheltered Instruction

Sheltered instruction is an adaptable teaching approach that uses multiple techniques to make academic content accessible for ELL students.

Within the classroom, teachers may employ a variety of teaching tools like visual aids, graphic organizers, and adapted texts to clarify complex STEM concepts.

Demonstrations and modeling serve as another layer, helping to illustrate theories or equations in a tangible way.

Techniques such as vocabulary previews, predictions, and cooperative learning foster an interactive environment where students feel comfortable engaging.

Additionally, using multicultural content and providing native language support can make the subject matter resonate more deeply with ELL students.

All of these elements work together to create an educational setting where ELL students can master STEM subjects while enhancing their English language skills. 


Dual-Language Education

Another technique to enhance English language learning for students is dual-language education.

This approach incorporates academic instruction in both the student's native language and English, sometimes even employing two teachers who teach the subject matter simultaneously in both languages.

For example, in a science class, one teacher might explain a concept in English while the other offers clarification in the students' native language.

This technique serves dual purposes: it not only ensures that students grasp STEM concepts by overcoming language barriers but also fosters their language development.

Lessons may alternate languages, with math taught in English one day and in the native language the next. The result is a more comprehensive and enriching learning experience that benefits students academically and linguistically. 


Community Connections to Enhance English Language Knowledge

Building strong relationships with families and the community can provide valuable support for ELL students in STEM.

Extending learning beyond the classroom creates a richer, more supportive educational environment.

Practical strategies include:

  • Hosting family STEM nights to get parents involved in their child's learning
  • Partnering with local businesses for internships or project materials
  • Sending regular newsletters in multiple languages to keep families informed
  • Organizing community mentorship programs that pair students with professionals in STEM fields


These approaches offer a well-rounded educational experience, improving ELL students' academic and language skills.


Empowering English Language Learners With STEM

Merging STEM education with English language learning goes beyond academic achievement to prepare students for lifelong success.

The point is to give students the skills to think on their feet and solve problems in all kinds of situations.

This mix of language and STEM helps students learn more than just facts—it gives them the skills they need to do well in a world where different areas of knowledge are more connected than ever.

We're not just helping students get by in school; we're setting them up to succeed in life.


Which STEM subjects are of interest to you?

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