Fourth-Grade Emergent Bilingual Learners’ Scientific Reasoning Complexity, Controlled Experiment Practices, and Content Knowledge When Discussing School, Home, and Play Contexts
by Cory A. Buxton , Ale Salinas, Margarette Mahotiere, Okhee Lee & Walter G. Secada — 2015
Background: In exploring how emergent bilingual learners’ prior knowledge from home and play contexts might influence their scientific reasoning, this study drew upon two distinct research traditions: (a) experimental research from the developmental and cognitive psychology tradition, and (b) research on culturally and linguistically diverse learners from the sociocultural tradition.
Purpose: As part of a larger research project to improve science teaching and learning in culturally and linguistically diverse elementary schools, we explored the knowledge that fourth-grade emergent bilingual learners brought to the classroom from home and play contexts, as well as the knowledge that was developed in the classroom. We considered how this out-of-school and in-school knowledge related to students’ academic abilities to reason scientifically, to follow controlled experiment practices, and to demonstrate knowledge of core science concepts in school.
Setting: The research was conducted in elementary schools in a large urban school district in the southeastern United States with a linguistically and culturally diverse student population.
Participants: A total of 81 fourth-grade students from 27 teachers’ classes across six schools were interviewed during a three-year period. These students were selected for equal distribution across four ESOL levels, two home languages (Spanish and Haitian Creole), and two genders.
Intervention: After being taught by their classroom teacher using a project-developed curriculum unit on the topic of energy that was developed to specifically support bilingual learners, selected students participated in an interactive interview with a member of the research team.
Research Design: The design can be described as analytic interview, in which (a) neither control group nor pre/post comparisons were used, (b) students were selected purposefully from classrooms based on demographic criteria, (c) student responses were coded both qualitatively and quantitatively, and (d) a sufficiently large sample size was used to allow for statistical analysis of student responses.
Findings: Students’ English proficiency level correlated with their ability to express scientific reasoning (in English), but not their ability to engage in controlled experiment practices. The home, school, or play context of the interview questions correlated with students’ ability to express science content knowledge about energy.
Conclusions: The uneasy tension of applying both cognitive and sociocultural theoretical traditions enriches and also complicates our understanding of how students learn to reason scientifically, how they engage in controlled experiment practices, and how they express science content knowledge. Curriculum materials, student assessments, and teacher professional development can all benefit from a better understanding of how emergent bilingual learners leverage their prior knowledge and epistemologies from both home and school contexts, as they engage in science learning.
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