Research Years 1-4: Project QuEST, Quality English and Science Teaching

Diane August, Ph.D.
Center for Applied Linguistics

Project QuEST (Quality English and Science Teaching) investigated a systematic intervention model to concurrently develop science content and language and literacy skills in middle school English learners.


Many students reach the middle grades (4–8) without the language and literacy skills needed to successfully learn from text. Estimates of the percentage of all students in Grade 4 and above who cannot adequately read to learn from print exceeds 25% and in urban schools is as high as 60% (U.S. Department of Education, 2003). A recent review (Snow & Biancarosa, 2004) found a variety of programs designed to address the needs of adolescent struggling readers, but none were specifically designed to address the learning challenges of English learners. While research has indicated that effective instruction for struggling readers is a good place to start in designing effective programs for English learners, attention to developing their reading comprehension is essential because of the unique problems and strengths that English learners bring to the task of reading in a second language (August & Shanahan, 2006).

While some research exists for beginning readers with reading difficulties who are English learners, there is considerably less research available for those students after Grade 3.

Moreover, the science achievement of students in the middle grades is lacking. In 2005, the average scale score for eighth grade students in Texas, where this project was conducted, was lower than the score in 29 other jurisdictions. The percentage of students who performed at or above the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) proficient level was 23 percent with only 11 percent of Hispanic students at or above the NAEP proficient score. At the time of the study, there was virtually no research on effective science interventions for students in the middle grades who are English learners to help guide the development of interventions for this group of students.

The overarching goal of this project was to improve the language and literacy instruction of English learners and their English-proficient peers and concurrently build their knowledge of key science concepts at the sixth grade level.

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Research Questions

An overriding principle in our research was that successful interventions must be effective for English learners, but must not disadvantage English-proficient students. Because English-proficient students and English learners are most often together in the same classrooms in the middle grades, both groups of students were incorporated in our study designs, and we tested explicitly for interactions of language status with experimental and traditional forms of instruction. If interventions that have not been developed for English learners have a negative impact on these students, then teachers and schools face a hidden cost of implementing these interventions in schools where classrooms are mixed, and these costs must be made clear. On the other hand, it is critical to determine how interventions designed for English learners affect English-proficient students. It may be that ESL/science enhanced versions of the curriculum benefit all students, regardless of language proficiency. Our research studies were designed to answer these important questions:

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Research Design

In the first year of the project, the QuEST curriculum was developed and pilot-tested with six upper elementary school teachers in Arlington, Virginia. Findings from the pilot work were used to revise the curriculum, which was then implemented in 10 sixth grade science classrooms in five middle schools in Brownsville, Texas in the second year. Teachers who participated in QuEST taught two science classes using the district’s standard science curriculum and two science classes using the QuEST materials and strategies. For each teacher, two sections were randomly assigned to QuEST and two classes were randomly assigned to the district curriculum. The sample of students included English learners, former English learners, and fluent English-speaking students.

All sixth grade students were assessed for language and literacy skills using the Group Reading Assessment and Diagnostic Evaluation (GRADE; Pearson, 2004) and for science and vocabulary knowledge using standardized and researcher-developed items aligned with the sixth grade curriculum. Scores were summed across the assessments for each of the two different units to create a composite measure of science knowledge and a composite measure of vocabulary, each administered pre- and post-instruction. Treatment effects were tested separately for science knowledge and vocabulary using analysis of covariance, with the analogous pre-test serving as the covariate. Analyses included fixed effects of treatment assignment and the covariate, and random effects for section and teacher. Treatment effects were tested at the level of the section. Results showed that the post-test difference favoring the treatment group sections was statistically significant for both science knowledge and vocabulary. Examination of variance components showed significant variability across teachers and sections in the performance of students in both treatment and control sections.

Based on numerous site visits and conversations with teachers, the QuEST curriculum was revised again. During the third year of the study, it was implemented in 15 sixth grade classrooms in 7 middle schools in Brownsville. As with the previous year, the challenge was to use grade-level science materials and to make the content accessible to all students in order to ensure that all students met state and district grade-level science standards. The science topics that were covered were "Force and Motion" and "Living Systems." In the summer of 2008, QuEST was implemented in 33 third and fourth grade classrooms in 18 elementary schools as part of a four week summer school program in Brownsville. The QuEST curriculum was developed to build the academic language of students participating in Full Option Science System (FOSS) classrooms. The findings from these studies are presented and discussed in August, Branum-Martin, Cardenas-Hagan, & Francis (2009).

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The Sixth Grade QuEST Curriculum: Study 1

The QuEST curriculum was developed to align with the Texas state standards, cover the same content as is taught during sixth grade science in the district, and use the same resources that are used in the regular classrooms, including the Prentice Hall textbook and district science labs. However, the QuEST curriculum incorporated additional elements to make it more appropriate for all students, including additional hands-on science activities to build conceptual knowledge, systematic vocabulary instruction to build academic and technical word knowledge, shared interactive reading to expose students to academic language in grade-level text, and student grouping to enable closer teacher-student interaction and peer support. The QuEST curriculum was guided by recent research findings on effective science teaching (Guthrie et al., 2004; Lee, 2005) and effective methods of literacy instruction for language-minority students--particularly building language and literacy in the context of content-area instruction (August & Shanahan, 2006).

Over the course of each five-day sequence in the curriculum, students engaged in hands-on experiments that supplemented the concepts introduced in the textbook. Graphic organizers helped students record information learned during the experiments, and concept maps helped students consolidate the science knowledge they acquired during the lesson. Students learned strategies to improve word learning (i.e., drawing on cognate knowledge and using root words, base words, and affixes) and build comprehension (i.e., summarizing and questioning the author). In addition, throughout the week, students participated in a shared interactive reading of the textbook in which the meaning of discipline-specific vocabulary, general academic vocabulary, and science content was clarified. Glossaries of the weekly vocabulary helped reinforce the vocabulary that students learned through the hands-on activities and guided reading (each entry includes a visual image, an English definition, a Spanish translation, and space for children to write notes). Teachers also built oral language through the questions they posed to students and the manner in which they responded, clarifying and elaborating on student responses. On the final day of each sequence, students reviewed the week’s work and took an assessment of science and vocabulary knowledge. For many activities, students worked in pairs; the pairs were constituted by selecting English-proficient students to work with students who were acquiring English.

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The Fourth Grade QuEST Curriculum: Study 2

The fourth grade summer school 2008 curriculum was intended to reinforce science knowledge on the topics of of magnetism and electricity that students were acquiring during FOSS science lessons and to develop the academic language associated with these science lessons. Throughout the five units, students participated in teacher guided readings of narrative and expository text aligned with the science lessons. During the guided reading, discussion of the text clarified vocabulary and science content. Pre-reading activities were designed to introduce students to content and language objectives, pre-teach vocabulary through picture cards and visual images in the text, and focus students on the major topics covered in the reading through the use of a ‘hook question’. During the last day of each unit, reinforcement activities including glossaries, games, and concept maps were used. Students were also taught ways to uncover word meaning through relying on cognate knowledge. Vocabulary assessments were given at the end of each unit to help teachers monitor student progress.

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Teacher Development

Teachers participated in extensive professional development prior to and during the implementation of the curriculum. Moreover, instructional support coaches worked with teachers on a weekly basis to help ensure that the curriculum was implemented with fidelity.

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Project QuEST made an important contribution to the field in that, up to that point, there was very little research that explored whether enhancements to traditional practices are necessary or improve the traditional versions, and importantly, whether modifications to traditional practices to make them more effective with English learners also make them more effective with monolingual English students. To be optimal, ESL-enhanced instructional practices must enhance the learning of English learners in the classroom and also provide the same effects, or better, for monolingual English students as traditional instructional practices without ESL enhancements provide them.

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August, D. & Shanahan, T. (Eds.) (2006) Developing Literacy in Second-language Learners: Report of the National Literacy Panel on Language Minority Children and Youth. Mahway, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

August, D., Branum-Martin, L., Cardenas-Hagan, E., & Francis, D.J. (2009). The impact of an instructional intervention on the science and language learning of middle grade English language learners. Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness, 2, 345-376.

Biancarosa, G., & Snow, C. (2004). Reading next: A vision for action and research in middle and high school literacy. Report to the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Washington, DC: Alliance for Excellent Education.

Pearson, Inc. (2004). Group Reading Assessment and Diagnostic Evaluation (GRADE). San Antonio, TX: NCS Pearson, Inc.

Guthrie, J.T., Wigfield, A., Barbosa, P.; Perencevich, K.C., Taboada, A. et al. (2004). Increasing Reading Comprehension and Engagement Through Concept-Oriented Reading Instruction, Journal of Educational Psychology, 96, 403-423.

Lee, O. (2005) Science Education with English language learners: Synthesis and research agenda. Review of Educational Research, 75 (4), 491-530

Snow, C. & Biancarosa, G. (2004). Reading next: Adolescent literacy development among English language learners. New York: Alliance for Education and The Carnegie Corporation of New York.

U.S. Department of Education. (2003). The nation’s report card: Fourth-grade reading 2002. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.

U.S. Department of Education. (2007). The Nation’s Report Card, Science, 2005 Snapshot Report.


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