Thursday / April 25

Supporting Multilingual Learner Science Success Through Vocabulary Equity Moves

As science teachers of multilingual learners (MLLs), it is critical that we not only provide equitable access to rigorous science content but also develop their primary, English, and academic language. To do this, we have found the use of what we term “Equity Moves,” or research-based strategies that include both language and culturally responsive scaffolds, allow us to better serve MLLs in our science classrooms as we support the development of both language and content.

I recently had the opportunity to collaborate on the writing of a new book along with Ivannia Soto and Theodore Ruiz Sagun titled Equity Moves to Support Multilingual Learners in Mathematics and Science. Our work together focused on scaffolding mathematics and science instruction using specific “Equity Moves” for our multilingual learners (MLLs) in vocabulary, discourse, modes of representation, and text features. Our goal is to design instruction with Equity Moves “baked in” right from the start rather than sprinkled in as an afterthought once the design of a science lesson has been completed. What you will read here is inspired and informed by our work together.

Here I will focus on two “Vocabulary” Equity Moves shared in the book and provide examples of how you might enact these same moves in your own science classroom.

A Common Approach to Science Vocabulary Instruction

Throughout their science education, students are presented with new discipline-specific Tier 3 vocabulary words (such as organism, electromagnetism, or gravity) alongside high-frequency academic Tier 2 vocabulary words (such as analyze or summarize). This vocabulary is critical in helping students understand the science concepts they must learn. Given the importance of vocabulary, and the large amount we must teach, it can be very tempting to focus instruction on helping our students master vocabulary. With this approach, we might teach vocabulary first and provide hands-on science experiences second. In this manner, the hands-on experiences reinforce the previously introduced vocabulary. This approach might make sense. After all, this vocabulary will appear on the assessments our students will take and to which we are held accountable.

Consider the following common science classroom example and approach to vocabulary.

At the beginning of a new science unit, we are naturally focused on the key vocabulary we believe our students will need to be successful. So we might start our new unit by having our students complete a vocabulary graphic organizer with the unit’s key Tier 3 vocabulary. To support our students in completing their graphic organizers, we might have them use their science books to copy the definitions. In addition, we might also ask our students to include pictures from the book for each word. Finally, once our students have completed their vocabulary graphic organizers, we can dive into our unit. But is this what is best for all students?

A New Approach to Science Vocabulary Instruction

While quite common and something we have done ourselves, the approach described above is not the approach we propose for best meeting the needs of multilingual learners.

Consider that all students enter school knowing a large number of words in their primary language, and that this vocabulary exists within each student’s experiences in the real-world. Because of this, it’s important that we first provide our students with hands-on, real-world experiences to which they can later attach vocabulary. This approach aligns with the framework on which the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) are based. Within this framework, the NGSS authors state, “Furthermore, for students with limited language skills, the absence of opportunities to engage in science learning deprives them of a rich opportunity for language development that goes beyond basic vocabulary” (National Research Council, 2012, p. 283).

How might we approach our science vocabulary instruction differently and better support our MLLs? We propose this be done through vocabulary Equity Moves. Two of these Equity Moves, vocabulary preassessment and cognate word walls, are highlighted here. These vocabulary Equity Moves help to build background knowledge through activities accessible to every student while leveling the playing field as we honor content and language.

Vocabulary Pre-assessment

MLLs come to school with conceptual knowledge of vocabulary, especially in their home language. Therefore, it is important to determine what vocabulary knowledge they bring to our classrooms.

We can do this through the use of vocabulary pre-assessment (Figure 1) following the steps below:

  1. At the beginning of a unit, select five larger concepts or thematic words that will be important for your students to understand.
  2. Then, use a ranking system of zero (No Understanding) to five (A Lot of Understanding) to have your students tell you to what degree they understand each word.
  3. Next, have students provide an example or connection to each word, if they can, in both their primary language (e.g., Spanish) and English.
  4. Once your students have completed their vocabulary preassessment, use the results to determine which words you will focus on more deeply using the explicit vocabulary development Equity Move cognate word walls described below.

Figure 1: Sample Vocabulary Pre-assessment

Cognate Word Walls

Cognates are words that sound alike and have similar meanings across two languages. An example is “organism” in English and “organismo” in Spanish. Cognates assist MLLs with identifying areas where their primary language can assist them with comprehending new words in an emerging language such as English. We can use cognate word walls (Figure 2) in our science instruction for explicit vocabulary development by following the steps below:

  1. At the beginning of a unit, review the vocabulary your students will use and identify any cognates. The website provides Spanish and English cognates in mathematics, science, and other subjects, and can support you in identifying cognates.
  2. Write the cognates you identify on your cognate word wall. You can have your students assist you in doing this since they often know words in their primary language.
  3. As you create the cognate word wall with your students, allow them to discuss their word knowledge in order to honor the linguistic assets and strengths that they bring to school.
  4. Add to the word wall throughout your instruction by adding definitions, pictures, and visuals related to the hands-on experiences you are providing to your students.
  5. Keep the cognate word wall posted in your classroom as a resource for your students.

Figure 2: Sample Cognate Word Wall

The two vocabulary Equity Moves presented here, vocabulary pre-assessment and cognate word walls, can be easily and intentionally included in the design and delivery of our science lessons. By including them, we can provide our students with access to rigorous science content while drawing on their cultures, building their background knowledge, and supporting their primary, English, and academic language development.


National Research Council. (2012). A framework for K-12 science education: Practices, crosscutting concepts, and core ideas. National Academies Press.

Soto, I., Sagun, T., Beiersdorf, M. (2023). Equity Moves to Support Multilingual Learners in Mathematics and Science, Grades K-8. United States: Corwin.

Written by

Michael Beiersdorf is a National Board Certified equity-driven educator who believes passionately in the power of education to transform students’ lives. He is a former science teacher of multilingual learners and currently serves as the administrative coordinator for the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Micro-Credentialing Program, where he is honored to play a role in supporting the growth and development of highly effective educators. He is one of the authors of Equity Moves to Support Multilingual Learners in Mathematics and Science by Ivannia Soto, Theodore Ruiz Sagun, and Michael Beiersdorf published in January 2023 by Corwin Press.

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