Intensive EAL support and differentiation in Biology

As an international teacher, I am familiar with EAL or Lang B students in my classes, and familiar with how to support them in my Biology classes which, more than even some of the other science subjects, has a lot of context-specific terminology that cannot be simplified. These terms can be almost impossible to simplify form non-native speakers but repeated INSET training has told me that I must. Some examples would include:

  • Heterozygosity
  • Anyone of the Animal or Plant Phyla students are required to know
  • Proteome
  • Clade
  • Oxidative Phosphorylation
  • Photolysis
  • Inhibitor
  • Eukaryote
  • Archaea
  • Transpiration
  • Cohesion

There are many more…

This past academic year I had a particularly difficult situation to deal with in my grade 10 biology class.

Grade 10 is the final year of the MYP and is equivalent to Year 11 in the U.K. My current school is very small, tiny in fact, by the nature that it has only been open four years.

As a new school in a competitive area we have a battle to recruit students. As an international school in an area where lots of families come with the parents work on short term contracts we have a high turn over of students.

Due to these factors, every year of teaching I have had to completely change my scheme of work for this grade and grade nine because of changes in the cohorts of students as well as yearly changes to science teaching hours across the week.

One year I only had brand new students taking grade 10 Biology all of whom had come from Francophone schools and so the MYP 5 course I had planned had to be changed to accommodate these students.

As an international school it can be normal to have turnover in students with many students leaving and new students entering at any grade. Things are also complicated because students may come from different national systems, and may have studied in different languages prior to joining us. It's very hard to comparatively assess the biological knowledge of different students coming from different languages of study and these different systems.

Whereas, last year, all the students in my grade 10 class were new to the school and I had to create a novel one year curriculum for them to ensure that none of the fundamentals from grade 9 were missing, this year I could revert to the original two year program I had planned previously.

This year I had some students who had progressed to grade 10 biology from grade 9 (these grades are planned as a two year consecutive course) internally and were on track to take the MYP eAssessment.

However I also had students placed in the class who came from different schools and were new to studying in English, let alone biology in English. Amongst these students there was variation. One student had absolutely no prior experience using or studying in the English language and others had never studied in the language, academically, but had spent some time of heir lives speaking and communicating with English.

At the start of the year, I was informed that all of these students would be taking the MYP eAssessment (the IB equivalent of GCSE)!

Despite my protestations that these students would not be ready for the eAssessment with only six months of going to an anglophone school, let alone studying biology in English and that they were better off being placed in an intensive EAL program, I was ignored.

The message to me was that I simply had to differentiate for these students! Differentiation is fine but when does differentiation steadily become "plan a whole new program?" What are the practical limitations for a teacher that determine when differentiation should stop and alternative arrangements need to be made.

A similar situation happened to a colleague of mine who teaches French. One year he was told that he would have French A (Literature – native speakers) students mixed in with French B (Aquisition – non-native speakers) and that the teacher would have to differentiate between these two groups.

I am all for differentiation and trying to meet individual students where they are at but I don't like it when it becomes a lazy shield for management to hide behind. Instead of the SLT taking charge and actually putting a proper intervention in place for these students, it is easier to pass the buck to the teacher and simply say "differentiate!" The problem with this is the anxiety, stress and associated mental health issues it will invariably create for staff.

What seemed to be lacking from members of the schools management is the difference between Jim Cummin's BICS and CALPS. Being able to speak in a second language with your friends is one thing, but being able to think about and explain complex, abstract concepts in a second language is quite another. Biology has a huge amount of subject or context-specific terminology that even native speakers can find daunting.

The year hasn't been a great success. Unfortunately some non-negotiables have to be negotiable as there is a limit to what a person can achieve in a day. What this meant for these students is that I simply wasn't able to plan for them as well as I would have liked, with all my additional responsibilities, particularly the running of the university guidance.

I focussed what time I could devote to this class on the students who would be taking the exam and focussed on developing the thinking routines within the class; connect-extend-challenge has become very popular!

However I have been able to learn something from this experience and found that the following techniques could be put in place very easily to support EAL students without too much interruption to the flow of the lesson:

  • Glossaries for every unit that focus on key words. I have started adding them to my DP workbooks as simply a space at the back for students to add their key words and definitions, but for the younger grades I will provide the words and the definitions.
  • Whole-class reading in every lesson. Making solid use of available texts and reading these out gives students a change to practice saying new words and gives me a chance to feedback to them and explain any new terminology.
  • When asking students to explain a concept to check for their understanding, allowing them to write out their ideas in the their mother tongue to support a speaking in the second language.
  • Asking students to write, in English, a short paragraph (3-4 lines) explaining what they learned either at the start of end of a lesson. As the teacher, I can rotate and check grammar, spelling and sentence construction. This is best done by hand as 1) the IB exams are currently written and 2) due to the Lindy effect, writing is likely to be around a lot longer than google docs.
  • Taking care to fully explain the roots of words e.g. "photo" & "synthesis" and giving students time to find the words in their mother-tongue if they have studies this concept before.
  • Allowing students to speak in their mother tongue to each other to aid explanations and comprehension.
  • During explanations given by me, slowing down and, where possible, using simpler language (not always possible in Biology – what is a simpler word for heterozygosity?).
  • Always check for understanding with open questions. "Please can you explain/write/draw this for me?" to show understanding.
  • Use of colours and images to describe tasks so that students become aware that when a symbol of a quill is used it means that they have to write.

Any more advice or ideas welcome in the comments!

A list of good open questions for use in teaching…

“A great question is one that gets us all thinking…students questions give us a glimpse into what they are thinking, what issues are engaging them, where their confusion is, where and how are they making connections…where are they seeking clarification?” Richhardt et al 2011


  • Why do you think you want this versus that?
  • How will your long term plans be impacted and why?
  • What would you lose if you didnt do that, and why?
  • What would you do if you could do whatever you wanted and why?
  • Write down the first thing that comes to mind when you think of college?
  • If you could say one thing to your parents what would it be?
  • Write down one message to your children?


Questions need to focus on learning and not on work, using the language of inclusion (we not I or you)

Give praise for the effort not for the outcome = growth mindset.

  • I was wondering if…
  • Can you say more about that?
  • Im not following you can you explain that in another way?
  • Questions that model an interest in ideas
  • Questions that construct understanding
  • Questions the clarify and facilitate thinking
  • What makes you say that?
  •  What does that tell us?
  • What questions are surfacing for you?
  • What do we see?
  • What do we think we know?
  • What else do you notice?
  • Can we explain this?

Review: Making Thinking Visible

I recently read part one and part three of Ritchhart et al’s 2011 book “Making thinking visible”. The book espouses a methodology for promoting thinking in students and for making that student thinking visible in the work that we do as educators and is broken into three parts.

Part one deals with the philosophy, terminology and theory of putting thinking at the centre of the classroom experience for students; part two details specific strategies that can be used to promote thinking; while part three deals with advice on how to get the most out of these strategies in the classroom.

I have struggled with this question in my own professional practice for a couple of years now. How do you balance, with the limited time you have in class, the need to develop the thinking skills used in the process of doing science with the need to develop knowledge of the content?

I can think of many conversations with colleagues where we have debated this. Often the running theme amongst science teachers in my experience has been that the content is king; that student needs the building blocks that the content gives them in order develop that deeper understanding of more complex science. You can’t just jump into redox reactions and the electron transport chain if students don’t have some understanding already to work with.

Often this has been levelled as a critique against the whole idea of inquiry teaching, the philosophical backbone of the IB. In science class how can you reasonably expect a G8 student to uncovering understanding that has literally taken scientists 400 years to develop?

Often-times science is taught in spiral way; students meet similar topics through middle and high school and each time they go into more depth. This allows students to construct understanding piece by piece year by year.

This book lays a clear challenge to that type of thinking but goes further by actually providing practical steps and examples of the types of questions teachers should be asking to develop students thinking. Undoubtably developing thinking skills in our students is one of the most important things we can be doing as teachers as these skills are inter-disciplinary and underpin lifelong learning. If you know how you can learn anything.

Thus as science teachers we need to examine why we do what we do and think more cleverly about how we use our time. After all, as this book highlights, quality in education is about developing dispositions and habits of mind, not simply high grades on exams with content that is then forgotten.

Students need to see us as learners and thinker, modelling those attitudes and valuing them. learning often occurs through reflecting on mistakes. This can be a challenge in schools where the culture sets the teacher in centre stage. I remember an ex-colleague once saying to me that if he ever admitted to not knowing something then his students would lose all their confidence and trust in him.

Part one of this book details the steps to making thinking visible through modelling an interest in ideas, constructing understanding, facilitating and clarifying thinking all through questioning, listening and documenting.

Ritchhart focusses on asking questions that model an interest in ideas, construct understanding and facilitate and clarify thinking. The key is to ask authentic questions; questions to which the answer is not predetermined, and to elicit these questions from the students as well.

Questions that model an interest an ideas set the classroom culture and allow students to see teachers as learners. Essential questions fall into this category. Questions that construct understanding are ones that guide, direct and push student’s understanding forward of the big ideas and concepts. “constructive questions frame the intellectual endeavors in which students are to be engaged and point them toward uncovering fundamental ideas and principles that aid understanding. Questions that clarify and facilitate thinking enable learners to get what is in their heads out and into the teachers. For example asking students “what makes you say that?” instead of simply responding to a comment will give you insight into how the student is thinking.

We need to learn to identify the key ideas and concepts with which we want our students to struggle and engage instead of just covering the curriculum and judging our success by how much we get through. This will enable us to put students in charge of their own learning and progress not merely providing them with material for the test.

We need to draw our attention to what types of thinking we want to foster in the classroom and what we think thinking actually is. We need to highlight thinking when it occurs in class. Until students can name a process they cannot control it.

As well as questioning, listening and documenting are highlighted as essential parts of the process. Modelling listening, a vigorous and interested attention in what the other is saying, is essential for modelling group interactions for students, showing them how to work collaboratively. Documenting as well as providing evidence of the thinking that is taking place should also act as a stimulus to drive the thinking forward.

Part two introduces the reader to a set of thinking routines that are grouped as to their purpose in the type of thinking they are trying to develop. Each routine contains detailed instructions for its use and clear examples on how to deploy it. Routines are not intended to be used as stand alone activities but as repeated structures in the classroom that students can eventually gain mastery of themselves.

I haven’t yet read part two yet as I didn’t feel the time for me would right until I had spent sometime addressing challenges that part one put before me. Once I have reflected on the types of thinking that I wish to elicit in my classroom then I will plough on into part two.

Part three provides useful case studies of from teachers using these routines over time, providing an excellent guide on how to bring these routines to life.

I was once again reminded of the usefulness of mindfulness in teaching practice. Mindfulness reminds us to remain in the present with attention and this is essential for all of these skills of questioning, listening and documenting and being able to respond to our students.

This book is certainly one every teacher should read, as it provides some excellently researched food for thought about what we are doing in our day to day as educators. Are we placing thinking, and the development of thinking skills at the centre of the learning experience of our students? or are we more focussed on content and assessment?

Got me asking:

  • Is memorisation and rote practice ever useful?
  • Don’t people need to train and doesn’t training involve practice and isn’t practice often rote learning?
  • What types of thinking do we want to encourage today?
  • What types of thinking do we want to encourage in science? What types are valuable to scientists?
  • How to balance the need for content knowledge vs thinking skills especially when curriculums are so broad and time is so short and universities expect a certain level of knowledge in undergrads?
  • What is a quality education?
  • What types of adults are we trying to develop?
  • What are the essential concepts in Biology identified in the literature of teaching biology?
  • What essential questions are we trying to ask in science/Biology class?
  • What routines do I want to use in my classroom?
  • What does our schools mission and vision say about thinking?
  • How can I incorporate more non-written, non-verbal reflection into my students learning?
  • What expectations do I set in my learning environments?
  • Is shorter lessons a good thing to promote deeper thinking?
  • How useful is individualization in developing understanding and advancing deep learning?
  • What are the essential questions to propel learning in Biology?
  • How do these change and morph through a teaching unit?