How can STEM subjects be integrated into language classrooms?

Students working on a group project with educational robotics

In an increasingly interconnected world, it is inevitable that language teaching will (and should) be influenced by other academic subjects and the outside interests of educators and students. Given that the vast majority of second language learners will be connected to the internet and be heavy users of their mobile phone, technology and science topics can be a good way to motivate and engage your students.

More broadly, using language to ensure a steady flow of students into STEM (Science, Engineering, Technology and Maths) careers and subjects is vital for national economies and to tackle the big challenges we all face. Similarly, in a global world for a future STEM professional, it is a really big advantage to know a second language. These roles all need strong literacy skills, an appreciation and understanding of the human experience and strong writing abilities. Language courses are perfect for building these skills, so how can language educators use STEM to build language comprehension and fluency?


Why STEM and languages?

The field of STEM is now international – scientists travel globally to research their area of interest and collaborate with multinational teams. The ability to communicate in more than one language is therefore more important to employers as Dr Bill Rivers, Executive Director for the Joint National Committee for Languages explained:

“Multilingual communication is intrinsic to today’s scientific collaboration and progress, which means the language industry is fundamental to furthering every aspect of STEM professions and business.”

Maria Del Rosario Freeman Suarez et al in their 2018 research paper went even further, concluding: “To be updated with scientific-technical advances, any researcher or professional needs to know other languages.

So the benefits for STEM subjects are clear, but how can incorporating STEM subjects into your classroom benefit language educators? Writing for Pearson, Sarah Hillyard, a subject matter expert identifies four key benefits: 

  • “Our brains are wired to make connections.” Providing a different or unusual context to language learning can help our brains retain the information more successfully. Learning vocabulary about weights, length and volume, for example, will be much easier to recall if associated with measuring jugs, rulers etc found from science labs rather than via drills and repetition.
  • As outlined above, for most students, the work they will go on to do will involve different disciplines. A broad base of scientific knowledge will be invaluable for a wide range of language jobs including interpreters and translators.
  • It helps build problem solving skills. For many students, being able to use what they know in one area can be very beneficial in helping them to solve problems and be successful in another. Studies have also shown that multi-linguists and scientists have better concentration and problem solving skills and are more able to multitask.
  • Offering a broad and rich curriculum which brings together different subjects and topics makes language learning more “interesting, relevant and meaningful.” Students are engaged and motivated to learn and are therefore more likely to stick with the course and progress.

It’s also important to note that the hands-on, real-world learning experiences which are commonly part of STEM subjects can help broaden the appeal of languages to a wider audience. This includes those students who may be anxious about speaking in class or who have literacy difficulties or disabilities.


Integrating STEM topics into your language classroom

The following six ideas give an indication of how STEM topics can be powerfully included in your language classroom. 

1. Incorporating key STEM concepts and language

Perhaps the easiest suggestion is simply to incorporate STEM themes into your everyday teaching and ongoing lessons. In addition to the measurement vocab suggestion above, lessons on grammar patterns / structures could be extended and connected to number patterns (maths), patterns in nature (science) or even coding structures too.

STEM language and terms can also be incorporated into language lessons. A topic on food, recipes etc could be easily done by getting students to think about the key elements of a healthy diet (e.g proteins, carbohydrates etc) and to calculate calorie counts (maths). Opportunities to share their insights could be shared with the class through a presentation or group / pair discussions.

2. Connecting STEM and literature

Hillyard’s article goes on to suggest that STEM projects / study could also spin off from a storybook that is being studied in class. One of her suggestions is that The Very Hungry Caterpillar (a classic ESL text) could be extended to include a review of what the caterpillar has eaten as well as looking at the life cycles of caterpillars and other animals.

3. Content and Language Integrated Learning, or CLIL

This widely-known term and teaching methodology is usually used to describe teaching of subjects in the target language rather than the first language of the learners. The approach is described in detail in a previous blog post, but in essence, lesson activities are specifically tailored so that learners can focus on the use of their second language as they learn the new subject content.

The approach is widely used in formal curriculum / education settings (e.g in bilingual schools, where all students learn maths in their target language) but is equally applicable for language learning. In the latter scenario, building knowledge of the language becomes the means of learning content – this is achieved through the creation of engaging, real-life scenarios which build motivation through the use of the target language in context. 

4. Project-Based Learning

Linked to the above, educators could also use a project-based lesson approach to bring STEM topics to life. Given the obvious interest young people have in the climate crisis, perhaps a project profiling an environmental issue in a country that speaks the target language could be engaging and interesting? Students would need to review a range of sources to understand the issue before writing a briefing paper for a government minister and then taking questions from locals and / or press (i.e their peers!).


Student programming with Scratch coding language during a remote STEM lesson


5. Using educational technology

As outlined above, the language classroom is a perfect environment for students (and educators) to get to grips with new educational technology. This could involve students working in small groups and solving relevant STEM subject related puzzles with educational robotics, 3D-printers, or producing podcasts, films, presentations as well as using the internet for research. Online language learning tools (such as Sanako Connect) also enable students to access learning resources away from school and to conduct conversations online with peers or with native language speakers.

6. Encourage scientific enquiry

At their core, STEM subjects are about developing hypotheses, running experiments and making conclusions based on the data. Whilst appreciating that this might be a challenge for some learners, there’s a wealth of language skills that can be developed through this type of activity. These include: listening to others and extracting information from sources, reading and reviewing text and data sources, recording results, detailing hypotheses and experiments as well as communicating and publishing results and findings. 

Whatever language you teach and whatever STEM topics might inspire you and your students, Sanako’s market-leading tools include a wealth of unique features that help language educators teach languages more efficiently and more successfully. It’s why the world’s leading educational institutions choose Sanako as their preferred supplier to support online and in-person lesson delivery.


If you are interested in learning more about how Sanako products support language teachers and students and would like to see how they could benefit your institution, book a FREE remote demo now to see them in action.

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