As of 2016, 4.9 million students — or 9.6% of students in U.S. public schools — were identified as English Language Learners (ELL), according to the National Center for Education Statistics. While different folks advocate using different terms to describe those students (for instance, some advocate using the term “multilingual students” instead, this Education Week blog post notes), at least one thing is certain: We need to think about how to set those students up for success in school, including in math classes.
“Many educators share the misconception that because it uses symbols, mathematics is not associated with any language or culture and is ideal for facilitating the transition of recent immigrant students into English instruction. To the contrary, language plays an important role in learning mathematics. Teachers use language to explain mathematical concepts and carry out math procedures,” Rusty Bresser wrote for the Math Solutions blog.
“The challenge of teaching math to English learners lies not only in making math lessons comprehensible to students but also in ensuring that students have the language needed to understand instruction and express their grasp of math concepts both orally and with written language. ELLs have the dual task of learning a second language and content simultaneously,” Bresser added.
In that post, he explains that ELL students often struggle in math class when they don’t understand the vocabulary, syntax and grammar used in instruction. He also provides specific examples of this.
This post on the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) blog invites us picture what many ELL students go through.
“Imagine that throughout your whole life, the only language you’ve heard or spoken is Spanish. You’re from a rural town in Honduras, the only home you know, and then at age six your family moved to the USA. Once there, you were signed up for 1st grade at the local elementary school, and you were thrown right into an English-speaking classroom. While at school, you received some English language support, but what you heard all day long at school is English,” wrote Evgeny Milyutin.
‘Take another look, you used to love math class in Honduras; yet, in your American classroom you feel bored, exhausted and frustrated. In fact, instead of feeling smart and capable, you’re actually starting to believe you’ll never be a good student in your American math classroom,” Milyutin added.
Milyutin reminds us that ensuring that ELL students attending public schools receive a proper education isn’t merely a goal to aim for, but, instead, a mandate. “Federal law requires that school districts ensure that ELLs can ‘participate meaningfully in schools’ educational program[s],’ and that schools strive to bridge language barriers…More recently, legislation has gone as far to require that districts use strategies and programs to help ELLs that are backed by scientific evidence,” Milyutin wrote, citing the Education Week article “Teaching English-Language Learners: What Does the Research Tell Us?”
In the second half of the article, Milyutin shares a list of what to do — and what not to do — when teaching ELL students mathematics. The list is based on an interview Milyutin had with Lisa Meyer, director of programming for Dual Language Education of New Mexico.
This post was included in a publication of the ASCD (formerly the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development).
Megan Rowe, a math teacher at Borah High School “in a linguistically diverse district outside Boise, Idaho” told article author Laura Varlas “Language is the entirety of the mathematics classroom. From the language I use when I’m teaching to the language students use when they’re reasoning among their peers—I don’t know how you could ever teach mathematics now without focusing on language.”
“Once you start looking at math through the lens of language, you see linguistic demand everywhere,” Bill Zahner, a San Diego State University professor and former high school math teacher told Varlas.
The rest of the article describes how educators can help ELL students, such as “building a baseline” and “weeding wordy problems.”