STEM With English Language Learners


STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) activities are highly engaging for students.  This is particularly true for English Language Learners. A key component is that the disciplines are integrated. Students typically have a real world problem to solve or project to create.

Here are some overviews of using STEM in the elementary classroom:

Reasons to use STEM Activities with ELLs

  1. Builds Background Knowledge- Having students take part in or observe an experiment, engineering challenge or other STEM activity creates shared background knowledge. It allows all students in a class to have a shared experience to refer back to.
  2. Keeps students engaged- Building, creating, and using technology are all highly engaging activities. For ESOL students learning reading, writing, listening, and speaking, it gives them an authentic reason to take part in these language areas. STEM activities are hands on.  They give students the opportunity to use their hands.  STEM activities also give students real life experiences.
  3. Speaking opportunities- STEM activities lend themselves to group work, and this creates authentic reasons for student to use academic oral language.  ELLs need many opportunities to speak in the classroom. Participating in a whole class discussions can be intimidating. Taking part in a small group building task  can be much less intimidating.

Ideas and Resources for Using STEM with ELLs

  • Preview vocabulary with students before they begin planing and building. This makes sure that ELLs are able to take part in group discussions with their peers and practice using the new vocabulary.
  • Provide graphic organizers.
    • Use for planning before building.
    • Use to reflect on a STEM challenge after it has been completed.
    • Use to record the steps a group uses to complete an activity.
  • Use sentence frames.
    • “First use the ______.”
  • Review prepositions. Particularly if students will be building and you have lower level ELLs this is an authentic opportunity to practice prepositions.
      • Provide students with a poster or handout to refer to if these are new terms.

  • Read a children’s book and then have students build something out of the book or solve a problem for one of the characters
Lakeshore Fairy Tales Problem Solving STEM Kits 
Lakeshore Fairy Tales Problem Solving STEM Kits


Integrating Speaking and Writing

My ESOL students need a large amount of practice with speaking and writing. Writing in particular is often a difficult task for them.  Some of them have a hard time generating ideas, others get bogged down with the mechanics of writing (especially spelling).  We have also been working this year on adding details to their writing.

Using speaking as a springboard for writing is an effective strategy for all students, but particularly ESOL students as it helps to build their oral language skills. I created some
Everyday Event Picture Strips for my students to discuss.  I modeled with one set of pictures, and then partnered students up to discuss the remaining pictures. I gave them sentence frames to help guide the discussion.

Afterwards I gave students a graphic organizer for the same pictures they had been discussing.  Depending on the needs of each group I sometimes gave students a specific set of pictures to write about and for other groups I let the students choose which set of pictures they wanted to write about.

Some students received a graphic organizer with a word bank and others did not require this scaffold.
Next they wrote a story adding in additional details.  Having previously spoken about the pictures helped students expand their writing.

Mood and Tone

My 5th graders are studying author’s tone, and mood.  These are complex concepts for my ESOL students to understand.  To start off I adapted a great Author’s Tone and Mood lesson. Before having student write, I they took turns talking about their stories this really helped my lower ones generate ideas, and gave all of them practice using the vocabulary. I created a visual list of words that they could use to describe the tone.

Then we used task cards to practice identifying tone in a passage.  They also practiced identifying the mood that a setting can create using task cards.

Writing Poetry

April is national poetry month.  Poems are fun for students to read any time during the year.  They are typically short which is less intimidating for struggling readers or ESOL students.

Writing poems is also fun for students.  Many of the traditional writing conventions are not as strictly enforced in poems.  Students can use fewer words to convey powerful messages.  Poems are a fun way to play around with language.

When teaching poetry there are a number of terms that students are expected to learn. I have developed poetry writing task cards to help introduce students to rhyming, alliteration, imagery, and onomatopoeia.


Collaborating and the Daily Five

As an ESOL teacher I collaborate with many different classroom teachers.  Ideally we would have ample time to coplan together.  Typically what ends up happening is I stop by a classroom for a few minutes in the morning.  Things are rushed as we are both trying to get things ready for the day.


This past fall my husband (who is a 2nd grade classroom teacher) implemented the Daily Five in his classroom.  We worked together to look over lessons and develop resources together.  We joked that this is the kind of co-planning we both wish there was more time during the school day to do.


We found a lot of posters on Pinterest for him to use.  We also made some when we couldn’t find ones to meet a specific need: 4 Ways to Read with Someone and Check for Understanding Bookmark.