a student, I struggled with math. I didn’t understand why it came so naturally to some students, but not to me. Looking back, however, I realize that I had an advantage that I wasn’t even aware of — I understood the language in which the problems were written, even if I didn’t understand how to solve them! Although it is easy to assume that many English language learners (ELLs) will excel in math because math is a “universal language” and students may have had prior educational experience that included mathematical instruction, that assumption can lead educators astray.
As I spoke with teachers and did research for this article, it became very clear that making sure that students understand math vocabulary and have ample opportunities to use it are very important. Solving word problems, following instructions, understanding and using mathematical vocabulary correctly — all of these skills require a language proficiency that sometimes exceeds our expectations. We tend to think of mathematics as a subject that does not require a strong command of language. In reality, however, mathematical reasoning and problem solving are closely linked to language and rely upon a firm understanding of basic math vocabulary (Dale & Cuevas, 1992; Jarret, 1999).
For many educators, the challenge of bringing language and math instruction together is a relatively new one. ELL teachers who hadn’t taught content areas previously are now being asked to lead or support instruction in the math classroom, and many math teachers who don’t see themselves as language instructors are now responsible for providing effective math instruction to ELLs.
High school math teacher Hillary Hansen learned just how big a role language plays in math instruction when she taught her first Basic Math course for ELLs last year. She wanted so much to provide the students with the good foundation they needed, but she felt unable to reach the students or engage them in her lessons, and by the end of the year she was exhausted and frustrated.
That summer she had an opportunity to join a district Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol (SIOP) cohort to receive professional development and support to meet the needs of ELLs in content classes. She learned about the importance of language acquisition, building background knowledge, increasing student language production, and explicitly teaching academic language. She began this school year with a new set of tools and a deeper understanding of the instructional scaffolding ELLs need in order to learn the content while also learning English. I am happy to report that while Hillary still feels challenged and is working very hard, this year has been much more successful for her and her students.
As a result of more effective instruction, her students:
understand the content better and are working together to find creative ways to learn
discuss math more and know how to use the instructional supports their teacher has in place
are comfortable with math and asking questions to get the help they need.
Hillary feels that she is providing them with the foundation they need not only to understand the mathematical concepts, but also to successfully interact within a math classroom in order to continue learning more advanced concepts.
Following are some strategies that Hillary and some of the other teachers I spoke with found helpful this year, and that they recommend as best practices when teaching math to ELLs.