Posted in Thinking & Research

Where is the Lit in STEAM+Lit?

STEAM is hot, hot, hot. From robotics teams to marshmallow bridges, engaging students through hands-on experiences with applying science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics to making, tinkering, creating, and collaborating is happening in our classrooms, schools, and communities. These experiences are tied to standards in the STEAM fields, to preparation for careers and college experiences in the 21st century. But, is the learning limited to STEAM, to making, creating, and ideating?


These experiences are an easy, engaging, exciting way to engage students in speaking like techies, scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and artists, to foster collaborative learning and  communication with peers, and to challenge all students to challenge themselves—through academic language use.


We begin with three specific strategies that embed academic language learning and use in the experiences.

1.) Open-ended questioning of students to foster and guide creativity, not structure their engagement. For example, when students  are prototyping rockets out of recyclables, helping students get from ideation to creation through questions like “how are you going to use the egg carton”, “what do all rockets need”, or “hmm, what might work to launch this”. Such questions put the onus on the students to direct their making and models for them the language scientists and engineers use as they collaborate.

2.) Provisioning of discussion sentence frames, either as posters in the classrooms or cards at tables, that students can turn to when they need a push to communicate and collaborate with their peers. My favorite excellent example comes from the Pasco County School District (Florida). These sentence frames can be adapted endlessly for different grade levels and provide built-in differentiation, empowering every student in your class to participate.

3.) Previewing of and emphasis on vocabulary exposure throughout the experience. With our prototyping lessons, we start by defining and discussing prototyping. We have the students break down the word, guess what it means, and generate their own examples of prototyping. As they work, we frequently use (and stress through prosody) the target vocabulary by asking students about their prototypes and encouraging their own use of the vocabulary.

As students get into making, as these experiences grab and hold their attention, and as they hear and encounter our models and direct instruction, they start to take the initiative to talk like scientists, techies, engineers, and artists themselves. This low stress, low stakes approach enables inclusion of every learner, at his or her level, in making, achieving the goals behind Universal Design for Learning.

Go forth and foster academic language! 🙂




I am a doctoral student at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, studying ESL education with an emphasis on Applied Linguistics, pedagogy, and special populations within TESL. I am a founding collaborator on the 21st Century Science Literacy project with Zoe Falls, in partnership with the Lincoln Children's Museum (

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