An Integrated Approach to Producing Educational Supports for English Language Learners in Biology 


During our presentation on Creating Educational Supports for English Language Learners (ELLs) to be Successful in Biology Acquisition and Retention at STAO in November 2014, we discussed three big challenges that educators faced when teaching high school biology to their students. They comprised of abstract terminology, overwhelming content, and a lack of opportunity for “hands-on” learning.

Abstract Terminology. When it comes to learning terminology associated with biology, many teachers felt that it is confusing for students to understand, retain, and use all the new vocabulary correctly, if at all, in their responses. This is partially related to the content.

Overwhelming Content. Many educators shared the sentiment that the enormous amount of content has to, for the most part, be memorized. However, because the concepts being taught are, at often times, abstract to fully grasp, they are thus rendered overwhelming for students to acquire and retain.

Lack of Hands-on Learning. Lastly, a lack of hands-on, or kinesthetic, opportunities for students in several topics, such as biodiversity and evolution to name a few, exacerbate the issue of students becoming overwhelmed by the vast content and vague terminology related to biology education. It also results in biology being dry to teach and students not receiving sufficient and continuous feedback.

Our participants’ responses mirror that of the literature review that we carried out for this presentation (Bruna, Vann & Escudero, 2007; Schönborn & Bögeholz, 2009).

scientist in school kid image3A little bit about ELLs

It is important to note that the above-mentioned challenges encompass all learners and not just ELLs. Before we specifically examine the extra challenges that ELLs face when acquiring biology education, it is important to recognize what constitutes an ELL. According to the Ontario Ministry of Education,

“[English Language Learners (ELLs) are students] “whose first language is a language other than English, or is a variety of English that is significantly different from the variety used in instruction in Ontario’s schools and who may require focused educational supports to assist them in attaining proficiency in English.” (Ministry of Education, 2007)

Based on the definition above, ELLs could be students who have recently immigrated to Canada from a non-English speaking country, Aboriginal peoples or from unique cultures that do not speak English at home even if they were born in Canada. Currently, 17% of Ontario high schools students are considered ELLs (EQAO, 2014), an increase from 10% in 2011 (EQAO, 2011), and this proportion is expected to continue to increase as a result of the large number of immigrants settling in Ontario (Manavathou & Zhou, 2012).

So, why is this significant? The focus of learning volumes of abstract language in biology contributes to declining enrollment in biology courses and programs by ELL students (Manavathu & Zhou, 2012). This decline has impact both for those pursuing STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) related careers and those who do not. For those students pursuing STEM related careers, a decline in enrollment in biology will translate into a lack of qualified Canadian citizens to take on a growing number of biology-related careers (Government of Ontario, 2015). For those pursuing careers outside of STEM, they will miss out on the opportunity to benefit from developing the 21st century skills, such as systems thinking, that are directly associated with studies in biology.

Similar to Bruna, Vann, and Escudero (2007), we find we need to question our goal in the biology classroom  – Is it to teach ELL students how to talk science, or is it to teach them how to do science? Or is it both? We had differences in opinion based on the research that we conducted as well as our own personal backgrounds and professional experiences. Thus, our discussion led us to using an integrated approach that involves both language and conceptual instructional strategies, relying on Information Communication Technologies (ICT) to make abstract concepts more concrete (VanRooy, 2012).

The language support strategies include instructional strategies such as wall posters, dictionaries, Google language tools, and tapping into prior knowledge, to name a few. (Please see our Prezi for more ideas.) The conceptual instructional strategy relies heavily on the use of technology (VanRooy, 2012), including applications and websites such as Spongelab Interactive, Explore Learning (Gizmos), PhET, and YouTube, in order to embed learning the language into task-based activities. An Integrate lesson may follow an outline something like this:

Ÿ  Anchor language using visuals and continue to support growing language (word wall, personal dictionaries and glossaries)

Use simulations that make abstract concepts more concrete (example: Mitosis could be supported using: YouTube video on Stage of Cell Cycle; Explore Learning’s Gizmo on “Cell Division”; Spongelab Interactive simulation of “Comparative Cell Division – Animal & Cancer”)

Have opportunities throughout lesson for students to record their observations and share findings with their peers (handouts, Moodles, Edmodo)

Provide opportunities to share learning with teachers to develop language (small group discussion)

Provide a place for students to make their own dictionary applicable to what they are learning (Smart Phones, handouts)

Have questions that make room for indigenous contributions

By shifting the focus of lessons from learning the language to learning the language in context, having supports in place for the language as it evolves, and by using technology to make abstract concepts more concrete, students may be less intimidated by the terminology that is inherent in learning biology and more willing to pursue their studies in biology.

Let us know what you have tried in your own classrooms and provide us with your feedback.


Bruna, K., Vann, R., & Escudero, M. (2007). What’s language got to do with it?: A case study of academic language instruction in a high school “English Learner Science” class. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 6, 36-54.

Education Quality and Accountability Office. (2011). Ontario student achievement: English-Language Students. EQAO. Toronto: Queen’s Printer for Ontario.

Education Quality and Accontability Office. (2014). Ontario student achievement: English-Language Students. Queen’s Printer for Ontario.

Government of Ontario. (2015, January 30). Life Sciences. Retrieved March 2015, from Invest in Ontario:

Manavathu, M., & Zhou, G. (2012). The Impact of Differentiated Instructional Materials on English Language Learner (ELL) Students’ Comprehension of Science Laboratory Tasks. Canadian Journal of Science, Mathematics and Technology Education, J2(4), 334-349.

Ministry of Education. (2007). English language learns ESL and ELD programs and services: Policies and procedure for Ontario elementary and secondary schools, kindergarten to grade 12. Retrieved from

Nunan, D. (2004). Task-Based Language Teaching. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

Rooy, W. (2012). Using information and communication technology (ICT) to the maximum: Learning and teaching biology with limited digital technologies. Research in Science & Technological Education, 30(1), 65-80.

Schönborn, K., & Bögeholz, S. (2009). Knowledge Transfer In Biology And Translation Across External Representations: Experts’ Views And Challenges For Learning. International Journal of Science and Mathematics Education, 7, 931-955.

By: Neha Kapileshwarker and Tasha Richardson

2 thoughts on “An Integrated Approach to Producing Educational Supports for English Language Learners in Biology 

  1. Appreciating the commitment you put into your site and detailed information you
    offer. It’s great to come across a blog every once in a while that
    isn’t the same unwanted rehashed information. Excellent read!
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    • Thanks for your kind words. STAO strives to provide science teachers a place to share valuable classroom resources. This year marks our 125th year of supporting the science teachers of Ontario.


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