How Do You Explain the Mitochondria to Someone Who Doesn’t Speak English?
I often joke that one of the first vocabulary terms I teach my students anymore is the word, “no.” As a biology teacher, there are a myriad of words and phrases my students need to know to understand the course content. My true goal as a biology teacher is to get students to connect the structure of the organelle to its function and understand how the two are related; but how does one do this for a student who needs to use translation tools to understand basic classroom discussion, let alone scientific terms?
Here are two strategies I have been implementing with my English Language Learner (ELL) students to help them acquire new vocabulary, specifically with the organelles of the cell. These strategies can also apply to many other contexts.
Strategy #1: Use Images to Make Connections
Strategy one sounds super simple because it is—use pictures! When introducing the cell, I give students a copy of the coloring sheet we will complete later in the unit and ask them to describe the structures they see in their own language, which I then translate into English. This exercise allows me to explain the organelles to students using their own words. For example, if the student says the mitochondria looks like a “zapata,” then I know that they think it looks like a shoe. I can then say that the laces of a shoe would be similar to structure of the cristae of the mitochondria.
Hearing the students’ own connections to the images gives me a new way of explaining the scientific terms in English. This kind of give-and-take in conversation is expanded further with my second strategy, and allows me to find common understanding with all students to help them draw their own connections.
Strategy #2: Make Learning Reciprocal
My second strategy helps everyone in the classroom learn something new—including the teacher! I call these activities “reverse vocab quizzes.” They ask students to give the teacher a word to learn when they are asked to learn new vocabulary terms in class. For example, I give my students 10 terms regarding the plant cell, and in return my ELL student(s) can give me one word from their language that I have to learn and write down when I grade their vocabulary quiz. This activity demonstrates respect for the student and their native language, and often significantly increases the culture of learning for everyone in the classroom.
When teaching new vocabulary, it is imperative that you teach the word in context rather than as an unattached, free-floating thought—in other words, students must be taught about the whole forest, not the individual trees, to wholistically understand a concept. I recently had a mid-year class change where I took over for another teacher, and when I announced that I was no longer giving weekly vocabulary quizzes, I heard cheers in each class. Vocabulary can seem daunting and confusing if it’s not offered with context or presented in ways for students to draw their own connections between new terms and their background knowledge.
For instance, if students cannot understand what the cristae are, then how can they understand what their purpose is? It’s no different for the ELL students. Giving them context can help them understand the concepts so they can make sense of the material. This is where the first strategy comes back into play—if you can explain something new in terms the student understands, they have a much better chance of understanding the concept, not just repeating words they don’t really understand.
My biggest suggestion for helping ELL students is to do your best to meet them halfway! If you show a willingness and desire to learn their language, they’re more likely to work with you to learn English words and science words alike!