Closing Math Achievement Gaps for English Language Learners

The right combination of instructional strategy and technology is key to engaging ELL students
By: | Issue: May, 2015
March 26, 2015

Using effective strategies to personalize the math learning experience is key to reaching all levels of learners, especially Spanish-speaking English Language Learners who vary in their English language abilities, math proficiency and personal circumstances. In this web seminar, originally broadcast on February 17, 2015, educators from an innovative school with an 85 percent Latino population in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, discussed the success they’ve had combining face-to-face instruction with online learning to drive math achievement for their ELL students.

St. Martini Lutheran School
Milwaukee, Wisconsin

We built our team at St. Martini around the idea that we love the kids. We believe every single one of them can learn. And in order to help them reach the goals that they need to, we have to be open to changingÑand changing very quickly. We’re in the third year of a turnaround, and are focusing on academics and deepening critical-thinking skills. We noticed that a lot of our students were below grade level, so we’re making sure that we fill in those basic standards and skills, along with challenging them to rise to the next level. Eighty-seven percent of our students are English language learners. A lot of them speak only Spanish in their homes. That population has influenced some of the decisions we are making, and has also helped us think about fostering family involvement.

We’ve offered some English classes for parents so that they can be more involved in their child’s learning and their success here at school. Our goal for academics has been 1.4 years of growth in reading and math. We now have 51 percent of our students on grade level for reading. At the beginning of the year, we were at 34 percent. For math, we are up to 56 percent of our students on grade level, up from 28 percent in the fall. We are very excited about the growth that we’ve seen. Another one of our goals is about retaining our families. There is a lot of transiency with students moving from one school to another, so one way that we’ve tried to invest in our families and in our students is to make sure that they are very happy and that they are pleased with the success they are seeing, so that they return for the next school year. Then we can continue taking them to the next level.

2nd Grade Teacher
St. Martini Lutheran School

A challenge for me is maintaining balance in the classroom. I don’t want the kids to have too much technology, but I also want them to have enough. I’m trying to find the right mix. From using this technology, we build a lot of character traits. Kids learn accountability and problem-solving. I want them to solve the problems on their own, because when they are on the computer, I am usually doing reading with a small group. It’s teaching them the 21st century skills that we all need to learn. I use a rotational model that allows me to work with each group and then pair children doing well to others who are struggling with the same concept. My students are on the computer for about 30 to 60 minutes a day. I use an array of programs that help engage them, including DreamBox LearningÑit mixes things up, captures their attention in a way that the traditional classroom doesn’t always deliver. Also, students aren’t forced to move on to new online lessons as they might if we were doing it as a class. They can do it at their own pace.

Using these programs has produced high-quality work, and has increased my students’ focus. It has improved self-esteem because they are passing levels and are excited about that. They tell me every day what level they are at and how much more they need to get to the next level. All of my 23 students are on different learning paths. Some have gaps that need to be filled when others are ready to move on. Data-driven instruction has accelerated their acquisition of phonics, vocabulary fluency and reading comprehension skills.

2nd Grade Teacher
St. Martini Lutheran School

It is hard for many of our students to get internet access. For those who can and who have computers at home, it’s a great supplement, especially when their parents or guardians don’t speak English. But for many of our students, time online in school is the only opportunity they have. My class uses the lab every morning for 30 to 60 minutes, working a rotation between various sites. We center around DreamBox and a reading program, but we’ll also use other programs on various days. Computer time allows for individualization of learning and lets the kids take off at their own pace. I especially appreciate the sites that give a teacher a look into how those students are doing.

This way I can pull a child outÑfor example, an ELL learner who is failing to pass a spatial awareness activity because she has no knowledge of the vocabularyÑand I can give her a crash course on the terminology necessary for her to progress. As a class, we celebrate the progress of each student, and we focus on the growth, not the starting or ending points. Computer time also provides them with another dose of appropriate and applicable academic language to use later in class, and the visuals help bridge the gap between concept and terminology. I cannot stress enough the importance of small group instruction. The small numbers help us key in on the issues and provide extra support where needed. The biggest benefit is conversation and the language immersion that students get when they are engaged individually. Immersion is huge for language acquisition.

Curriculum Designer
DreamBox Learning

DreamBox is a K8 online adaptive math program. When we say “adaptive,” that means that the program learns the learner. We try to engage students or immerse them into a mathematical situation where they need to think critically. We’re not lecturing them. We’re not telling them how to solve it. But what we are doing is presenting them with a mathematical situation, and based on the actions that they take, we respond and provide scaffolding that will lead them to a learning objective that they are prepared for. DreamBox uses an intelligent adaptive learning engine, which means that every student has a different learning pathway. The emphasis is not on whether they got it right or wrong, but how they get it right or wrong.

On top of that, we need to provide a motivating environment, a personalized learning experience that connects with the students, helps build confidence, and in turn engages them to be thinking about things as a mathematician would. Instead of just thinking about math, we want them to be mathematicians and come up with their own problem-solving strategies. We also provide an array of actionable reporting data. The program sends teachers trigger emailsÑnotifications letting them know if a student is doing well, or if they are struggling. And it will group the kids in a three-tier chart: who needs to work on this concept, who is in the middle, and who has mastered it. Visit our website for teacher tools and sample lessons in English or Spanish, or to request a demo of DreamBox.

To watch this web seminar in its entirety, please go to:

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