This blog post was contributed by teacher trainers Marlies Algoet, Thijs Eeckhout & Helena Taelman (ODISEE)
Flemish preschool classrooms contain a relatively high number of multilingual preschoolers from families with a low socioeconomic status. These children may benefit from high-quality educational activities that focus on STEM (short for “Science-Technology-Engineering-Mathematics”) because preschool science activities are cognitively challenging and rich in language learning opportunities [1-3]. Hence, we cooperated with 15 preschool teachers to build good practices that integrate STEM and language and fit diverse preschool groups of 4- and 5-year-olds. Our two-year-long design process, including try-outs, observations, and interviews, resulted in the following five recommendations:
1 Maintain the research cycle or design cycle in your activities
All our projects contained five phases, following the research cycle or design cycle:
- The presentation of a problem. Mouse Fer is chased by a cat. Its only way of escape is an open window.
- Brainstorm to explore the problem and find a possible solution. The children come up with as many escape possibilities as they can think of.
- The research phase or design phase. Together, children make a cable railway.
- The testing. The cable railway is tested before a toy mouse is sent on her way out.
- The evaluation. The children discuss both the process and the product.
Although these phases may blend into one another, we advise not to skip one. During our projects, the first and the second phases in particular resulted in rich language conversations. The third phase encouraged children to think and be creative, but they were sometimes less inclined to interact verbally, probably because they concentrated their energy mainly on exploring and designing. In the testing and evaluation phases, children had again ample opportunity to talk and a multitude of things to discuss.
2 Pre-teach to ensure the involvement of all children
Our teachers observed that several multilingual learners of low socio-economic status enthusiastically engaged in STEM-activities and actively participated in language stimulating discussions. Others struggled, however. They showed hardly any curiosity at all, they were barely involved, and had limited initial knowledge, combined with poor language skills. Children like that need to be familiarized with the theme and immersed in relevant experiences in advance. For example, you may introduce the problem and explore a limited number of possible solutions with them in advance. It will pave the path for more committed participation in the subsequent activities.
An example: Before the start of the project with Mouse Fer, a few children can already listen to the story, think about what cats and mice eat, experience in the playground what a cable railway is like, and think of the differences between cable railways and ladders. This pre-teaching phase will prepare the children for the actual start of the project in class. Not only will they have a better understanding of the problem, but they will also have some ideas to contribute to the brainstorm. When you keep the materials of the pre-teaching phase in view throughout the brainstorming phase, these will surely help children to express their ideas.
3 Sustain rich conversations by using advanced language interaction strategies
We recommend limiting the number of language strategies to apply intentionally. We selected no more than five strategies but challenged the teachers with advanced variants of these strategies. For example, teachers were asked to put a child’s actions into words and make the reasoning behind the actions explicit.
“I see you take the largest box for your cable railway because Mouse Fer will certainly fit into it. You make the car go down the cable very gently to make sure Fer won’t fall out of it.”
4 Select STEM-words and content words for meaningful vocabulary teaching
It pays off to intentionally teach children new words. We selected important content words related to the project theme, such as “to land” or “to crash” in case of the cable railway project. Besides, typical academic words arising during STEM activities such as “curious”, “to explore”, “proud” were focused on to make sure that the more general STEM-objectives, too, were given due attention.
In the project with mouse Fer, we selected the STEM-word “test” as a target word. As a result, teachers concentrated more on the testing phase, its usefulness in particular. Children picked up the concept of “testing” quite easily. For instance, they asked for a chance to test something for themselves as this seemed thrilling to them.
5 Undertake extra language activities and exploit every opportunity to do so
Integrate a small surprise in the welcoming routine at the start of the day: tell a short joke, bring along an interesting object, read aloud a small poem … all of course concerning the project theme. This unexpected element very often starts off spontaneous interaction. Playing word games and introducing challenging conversation topics are other ways of making the most of class time. In the latter case, we encouraged children to think about problems and possible solutions, by using pictures and/or objects.
An example: Starting from a collection of pictures, children selected a new dwelling for Mouse Fer, who had to leave its home. While discussing the advantages and disadvantages of each place they had to use fairly complex language, including the target vocabulary, and apply interaction techniques such as listening and responding to each other.
-  Cabell, S. Q., DeCoster, J., LoCasale-Crouch, J., Hamre, B. K., & Pianta, R. C. (2013). “Variation in the effectiveness of instructional interactions across preschool classroom settings and learning activities.” In: Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 28(4), p. 820-830.
-  Henrichs, L. F. & Leseman, Paul P.M. (2014). “Early Science Instruction and Academic Language Development Can Go Hand in Hand. The Promising Effects of a Low-Intensity Teacher-Focused Intervention.” In: International Journal of Science Education, 36 (17), p. 2978-2995.
-  Hong, S. Y., & Diamond, K. E. (2012). “Two approaches to teaching young children science concepts, vocabulary, and scientific problem-solving skills.” In: Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 27(2), p. 295-305.