Elevate ELL Math Achievement With These Top Tips and Strategies
Math has often been called “the universal language.” While it’s true that numbers work the same way regardless of the language you speak, teachers cannot assume that their English language learners (ELLs) will automatically excel in math for this reason alone.
Language proficiency is also closely related to the development of strong mathematical skills. Kristina Roberston writes, “Solving word problems, following instructions, understanding and using mathematical vocabulary correctly — all of these skills require a language proficiency…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).”
This blog will discuss specific ELL math best practices and math instructional strategies that you can use to boost student learning.
4 Best Practices for ELL Math Instruction
According to data from the US Department of Education’s Academic Performance and Outcomes for English Learners, overall ELL performance in math has been significantly below the performance of native speakers.
For ELL students to fully participate in the math classroom, teachers must employ strategies to promote both their academic and linguistic development. The following best practices can help you support your ELLs’ mastery of math skills.
1. Scaffold your instruction
As you consider how to engage students in math lessons, it’s important to provide your ELLs with support in navigating the linguistic challenges of math. Jeanine Harvey, director of multilingual learner academics at The New Teacher Project says, “We know from our work that multilingual learners do not have the same access to grade-level assignments as their peers…All students could engage with grade-level assignments with the right supports.”
Scaffolding instructional strategies for math may involve the following:
- Providing visuals.
- Allowing students to work in pairs or small groups.
- Modeling and thinking aloud during instruction.
- Using manipulatives.
- Giving students word banks.
By providing intentional and strategic instructional scaffolding, your ELL students will be more engaged and experience more growth.
2. Use a variety of learning modalities
All students benefit from instruction that incorporates a variety of learning modalities. Research has shown that when auditory, visual, and kinesthetic methods are combined, students retain information better.
Though all students benefit from hands-on learning activities, they are particularly important for ELLs. According to The National Math Foundation, “By 2009, Mulalic (et al.) discovered that the kinesthetic learning style was the most preferred learning style among ESL students. Studies in 1987, 1990, 1993, 1997, and 2001 reported that adult L2 immigrants and ESL students in the US favor kinesthetic styles over all others (Gilakjani, 2012).”
While there are many ways to incorporate kinesthetic activities in your ELL math instruction, manipulatives are one of the most powerful tools you can use to support your ELLs. Although they are often thought of as math tools for elementary students, they can be used with students at any level.
Manipulatives provide a common language for students to communicate their thought processes. This is especially important for newcomer ELLs, whose expressive English language skills are starting to develop.
3. Promote language production
When you’re teaching math to ELLs, it’s important to consider how you can deepen their understanding of math concepts as well as encourage their language skills.
However, your ELL students face a significant cognitive load during instruction in content areas— they’re simultaneously learning a new language and new skills. It’s important to minimize their cognitive load while maintaining academic rigor.
A student’s proficiency in a language is dependent on both production and comprehension. ELL students’ receptive language skills generally develop more quickly than their expressive language skills.
Teachers need to intentionally help them increase their language production. You can do this through scaffolding and supportive language practices, like those below.
- Allow students to use their native language alongside English.
Doing so can help you gain an understanding of what students know in their native language and will help in making connections with prior knowledge.
- Provide students with sentence frames for a math discussion.
For example, “I know that this is a ______ because it has ______ line segments and _____ vertices.”
- Create opportunities for low-stakes discussion through activities like think-pair-share.
Jeff Zwiers, a senior researcher at the Stanford Graduate School of Education and the director of professional development for the Understanding Language initiative, stresses the importance of giving ELLs time to talk with each other and ask questions.
Zwiers states, “Very few kids will raise their hand and say ‘Can you explain that?’ to the teacher, particularly multilingual learners, who need it the most, they won’t do that. But with one other person, it’s a safer setting.”
4. Focus on word problems
As word problems become increasingly difficult over time, it’s important to note that reading skills play a vital role in math.
Brenda Krick-Morales writes, “Word problems in mathematics often pose a challenge because they require that students read and comprehend the text of the problem, identify the question that needs to be answered, and finally create and solve a numerical equation — ELLs who have had formal education in their home countries generally do not have mathematical difficulties; hence, their struggles begin when they encounter word problems in a second language that they have not yet mastered (Bernardo, 2005).”
When using word problems with ELL students, it’s important to consider the following questions:
- What background knowledge do my students need to have to understand this problem?
- Are there any multiple-meaning words or phrases that my ELL students may not be familiar with in this problem?
- Do my students know key terminology that is common in word problems?
- Will my students need to distinguish between necessary and unnecessary information in this problem?
High-Impact Strategies to Teach ELL Math Vocabulary
Vocabulary instruction plays a key role in ELL math achievement. ELLs need explicit, intentional vocabulary instruction to successfully gain math skills.
Focus on academic vocabulary
Math is full of challenging words like quadrilateral and vertices—and your ELL students may or may not have a prior understanding of these concepts in their native language.
ELL students benefit from pre-teaching academic vocabulary terms in a lesson, as it provides them with a foundation of understanding. It is also important to give them multiple exposures to math words—research on vocabulary development shows that students retain vocabulary better when they learn words in context rather than in isolation.
The following ideas can help you develop and reinforce academic math vocabulary:
- Use a math word wall with visuals for ELLs.
- Create personal “word walls” customized for math vocabulary.
- Use precise vocabulary when discussing terms AND give a kid-friendly definition.
- Incorporate graphic organizers to help students develop and expand their understanding of word meanings.
- Get creative with teaching definitions—give students numbers and have them line up from least to greatest or give students string and call out different shapes for them to create. You can have a little fun while engaging your students in different learning styles.
Teach “tricky words”
Math vocabulary includes both specific terminology and everyday words that have different meanings in the context of math. Take a look at the example below:
Did the student “find x”? Technically, yes!
Words like “face,” “table,” and “carry” (and even the word “and!”) have different meanings when they’re used in math. Provide your ELL students with many opportunities to practice using these tricky words in the context of math.
Don’t forget about homophones
Whether you’re a native speaker or new to English, homophones can present a challenge. Many math vocabulary words are homophones: some and sum, raise and rays, won and one, wait and weight…the list goes on!
Consider creating a chart for your ELLs to reference to help them differentiate between common homophones.
Math and language skills are inextricably linked. By keeping language in mind when you plan your ELL math instruction, you can help your students develop important math skills.
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