Language adds up for ELLs in K12 math instruction

Embedding English literacy and reading in math instruction gives ELLs a learning boost

For Charlotte “Nadja” Trez, the math struggle of English language learners is personal.

Eighteen years ago, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools administrator was an ELL student herself. Trez, now the North Carolina district’s executive director of ELL Services, had just moved to the United States from South Korea, and she found herself in a classroom tasked with learning English and keeping up with her peers in core academic classes.

Despite the challenge—or perhaps because of it—Trez now firmly believes in maintaining rigorous math standards for all ELL students, and embedding language lessons in math instruction. “For me, it’s all about high expectations,” Trez says. “I believe that language will come as they progress through the curriculum.”

These students use both sides of their brains, and there are so many benefits to that, she says. “If we hold our students to a higher standard and believe in them, they will bring a lot of assets to our system.”

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Educators must combine those high expectations with support, adds Rusty Bresser, a University of California San Diego lecturer who researches best practices for teaching math to ELLs. “You have a lot of English learners who know a lot of math,” says Bresser. “The big idea is that you don’t want to dumb down the curriculum.”

Here, Trez, Bresser and other educators present five broad best practices for blending reading and language into math instruction.

1. Look at math as a language

Trez uses a professional development program called Personal Academic Command for English that integrates the language of math with math content, “because we are all math learners,” she says.

The program introduces techniques that teachers can integrate into their math curriculum. One strategy, called “Novel Ideas,” activates prior knowledge of math vocabulary and is completed in a cooperative learning environment.

An example of a math vocabulary word is “steep,” which has multiple meanings. Teams of students will compile all the meanings for that word and share their lists with the rest of the class. Each team will have a meaning or idea of the word that the other teams don’t have—that meaning will be considered a novel idea.

This exercise gives teachers guidance on what students already know about the term, and provides students with a visual list that shows the word’s various associations.

“The key takeaway is that the strategies and tasks are essential to ELLs, but are also beneficial for all learners,” Trez says. “We developed this professional development with the needs of our educators and students in mind to show that if we look at mathematics as a language and not as an isolated content area, our students will be able to gain a deeper understanding of math.”

2. Promote reading comprehension

ELL students must learn math problem-solving skills along with computation, says Michael Orosco, associate professor of special education at the University of Kansas.

“Teachers are comfortable teaching times tables,” he says. “But the students need to learn a more conceptual base for comprehending math problems.”

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Orosco, while a K12 teacher in Colorado, used the University of Chicago’s Everyday Mathematics curriculum to shift to conceptual-based math. He noticed that when he put up a problem with numbers in it, the ELL students understood.

“Four is ‘cuatro’ and it means the same thing in English and Spanish,” he says. “But when a word problem went up, guess what would happen?”

Math and language teachers in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools now collaborate more closely to develop lessons.
Math and language teachers in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools now collaborate more closely to develop lessons.

That’s when Orosco brought reading comprehension strategies into his ELL math classroom. He also conducted a study of 78 students and found that scores and achievement improved for the students who were taught math with reading comprehension.

“Our education system tends to be heavily reading-based,” he says. “Teachers have a lot of experience teaching reading, but don’t get enough practice teaching math. Story problems take practice, and they are the gateway to algebra.”

For example, the word “discount” must be understood before a student can figure out how much a $1,200 computer will cost if it’s on sale for 20 percent off. Teachers will have to sound out the word and then teach the concept of discount.

Once that is achieved, teachers can set up the model to have students solve
the problem.

“I’ve learned to work with teachers’ strengths, and at the elementary level, that is really about reading,” Orosco says. “We can teach a kid how to multiply 4 times 4, but it’s difficult to teach them a math concept.”

3. Leverage the power of literacy and images

Use everyday terms, or synonyms, in conjunction with academic terms, and whenever possible, use cognates like triangle and “triÁ¡ngulo,” for example, says Bresser, of University of California San Diego. This strategy can only be used with languages that share roots.

Teachers should also make visual vocabulary charts and draw pictures, such as squares. Teachers can draw a picture that shows evens and odds, and give examples. Visuals make everything transparent, Bresser says.

Teachers can also provide support through the use of sentence frames. For example, if you are teaching about a square, frame the question like this: “A (square) has (four) sides.” Leave square and four blank. That way, students have a tool in which to frame the sentence and learn the important math concept.

Teachers should also differentiate questions based on a student’s level of English proficiency. Advanced English speakers can be asked open-ended questions, while new English learners should be asked yes or no questions, as in: “Is this a triangle? Yes or no?”

Finally, Bresser says, consider using the native language to translate concepts.

4. Let your class collaborate

Teachers can partner students with math buddies. For example, place a fully bilingual student with an ELL, so the former can help translate. This will benefit both students, Bresser says.

Students also need opportunities to talk during a whole class discussion. For example, ask if eight is an odd or even number. Then have students turn to each other and talk about how they decided on an answer.

Another effective method is choral response, also called “echo talk.” For example, the teacher says: “I’m going to say something, and you are going to say it back. The square has four vertices.” That way, the teacher is modeling and the students are repeating the concept. It supports learning the new language, Bresser says.

5. Bring academic departments together

Rather than teaching language, language teachers now must work closely with the math department. “Because of Common Core, there is no time for them to learn English first,” says Trez, of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. “They will be so far behind. We have to tackle language and content at the same time.”

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Educators also need to remember that learning a new language is difficult, regardless of age, Bresser adds. Currently, 10 percent of the U.S. student population is ELL. In some states, such as California, that number can be as high as 25 percent.

“There’s this misconception that it is super easy to teach English learners, but that’s so untrue,” Bresser says. “The way you learn concepts is by listening to people explain them and by explaining them yourself.”

Shawna De La Rosa is a freelance writer in Washington.

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