English Language Learners and Math

by Leslie Waltz 

My husband and I are both educators who work with English Language Learners. For this reason, it is not uncommon to receive requests for advice from teacher friends and family who suddenly find themselves with a language learner in their classroom and don’t know what to do. Not too long ago, we received such a request. It read:

I have a student that speaks Vietnamese. His primary language. Very limited English. 50 words tops. I figure he’ll do fine in math. However, what suggestions do you have for ELA and Social Studies?”

Did you notice the phrase: “I figure he’ll do fine in math”? Do you agree with it? I hear it so often from teachers, administrators, and even superintendents and school board members, that it’s become an area of great passion for me. There is a notion that math has no language; only numbers! But, is it true? 

Consider the following word problem: 

A football team scored 51 points. The team scored touchdowns and field goals
only, and never made the extra point after their 4 touchdowns. How many field
goals did they make? 

There is so much language in that word problem, and a specific context (football and its scoring rules), that an EL would need to decipher to be successful. An extreme example, I know; but it underscores the need to think of math as more than only solving pages of multiplication and division problems. 

So, how, then, do we support language learners in Math? The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics published an article at the start of the year titled “Supporting English Learners in the Math Classroom: Five Useful Tools” by Zhao and Lapuk. Their five tools are a great place to begin:

  • Build Cultural Background Knowledge - All students come with funds of knowledge! It is important to create opportunities to elicit what students know and to supplement with the background knowledge they might be missing. Remember the field goals example? Most students would benefit from an explanation, and even a table that shows the different ways points are scored in football!

  • Build Vocabulary in Mathematics - Using visuals and movement (such as Total Physical Response) when learning and reviewing vocabulary benefits English Learners, and the whole class! Former students of mine still happily produce the combination of moves to show what a “prime number” we created together. Allowing students to add their own language to vocabulary word walls is a great way to include and honor what they bring to the classroom!

  • Support Reading - Building vocabulary (previous tool) helps at the word level, but students need to be able to read and make sense of the short stories that word problems tend to be. Intentional planning can provide the math you need to teach in a context that is relevant and helps students be engaged. Storytelling, acting out scenarios, and using news articles relating current events to math, can help students understand the words on the page. 

  • Support Writing - Writing in math can look like justifying thinking, proving solutions, and critiquing the solutions of others. A support for students in this area is collaboration with a language partner, the use of borrowing tables, word banks, and frames. The best way to support writing is to first work on tool 5: support speaking!

  • Support Speaking - Providing opportunities for students to speak in the classroom is crucial! Students will benefit from supports such as sentence frames or word banks, as well as ample opportunities for oral rehearsal. This will benefit the students’ ability to read and write in math. Allowing English learners to use their home language to process their learning is important! As a teacher, much care needs to be placed in creating equitable environments where ALL students can speak, not only those who raise their hands first.

  • Supporting students in Math requires a lot of intentional planning, but it is worth the effort to ensure that ALL students, no matter where they come from, have a chance to “do fine in math”. And you may be surprised to find that the supports you put in for language learners benefit your native speakers as well!

    Work Cited:

    Zhao, M., & Lapuk, K. (2019). Supporting English Learners in the Math Classroom: Five Useful tools. Mathematics Teacher, 112(4), 283–293.

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