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ESL students learning biology : the role of language and social interactions Jaipal, Kamini

Abstract

This study explored three aspects related to ESL students in a mainstream grade 11 biology classroom: 1) the nature of students' participation in classroom activities, 2) the factors that enhanced or constrained ESL students' engagement in social interactions, and 3) the role of language in the learning of science. Ten ESL students were observed over an eight-month period in this biology classroom. Data were collected using qualitative research methods such as participant observation, audio-recordings of lessons, field notes, semi-structured interviews, short lesson recall interviews and students' written work. The study was framed within sociocultural perspectives, particularly the social constructivist perspectives of Vygotsky (1962,1978) and Wertsch (1991). Data were analysed with respect to the three research aspects. Firstly, the findings showed that ESL students' preferred and exhibited a variety of participation practices that ranged from personal-individual to socio-interactive in nature. Both personal-individual and socio-interactive practices appeared to support science and language learning. Secondly, the findings indicated that ESL students' engagement in classroom social interactions was most likely influenced by the complex interactions between a number of competing factors at the individual, interpersonal and community/cultural levels (Rogoff, Radziszewska, & Masiello, 1995). In this study, six factors that appeared to enhance or constrain ESL students' engagement in classroom social interactions were identified. These factors were socio-cultural factors, prior classroom practice, teaching practices, affective factors, English language proficiency, and participation in the research project. Thirdly, the findings indicated that language played a significant mediational role in ESL students' learning of science. The data revealed that the learning of science terms and concepts can be explained by a functional model of language that includes: 1) the use of discourse to construct meanings, 2) multiple semiotic representations of the thing/process, and 3) constructing taxonomies and ways of reasoning. Other important findings were: talking about language is integral to biology teaching and learning, ESL students' prior knowledge of everyday words does not necessarily help them interpret written questions on worksheets, and ESL students' prior knowledge of concepts in their first language does not necessarily support concept learning in the second language.

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