Supporting English Learners in the Mathematics Classroom

Johannah Nikula has 15 years of experience designing and studying professional development for mathematics teachers. Her work has a special focus on helping teachers meet the needs of students from a variety of backgrounds and with different levels of English proficiency. With Mark Driscoll and Jill Neumayer Depiper, she is the co-author of the book, "Mathematical Thinking and Communication: Access for English Learners" (Heinemann). Currently, she is co-leading an EDC project, Visual Access to Mathematics, that is developing and studying a blended-learning professional development program that will address the critical need to support middle-grades mathematics teachers in enhancing English learners' mathematics learning and promoting their college and career readiness. In this post, she reflects on this work and shares some lessons learned.

When I describe my work to support mathematics teachers with students who are English learners (ELs), I often hear a similar reaction. People respond that mathematics class seems like a natural place for students who are ELs to thrive. Mathematics is about numbers and pictures (of shapes), not words. Why would mathematics teachers need support?

The sentiment that mathematics class is a natural and important place for students who are ELs to excel rings true. Yet words and language really are an integral part of students’ experiences learning mathematics. In fact, mathematics lessons can be packed with both academic and everyday language. For example, students encounter word problems and task instructions. And teachers and students alike draw upon words to explain their mathematical thinking. For this reason, mathematics lessons are a fruitful place to carefully intertwine support for both students’ language development and their mathematical learning.

How can mathematics teachers make the most of this rich learning environment for students who are ELs? For over a decade, Mark Driscoll and I have studied this question along with an EDC team. Most recently, we’ve engaged in collaborative research on the topic with partners at Horizon Research, Inc. and Lawrence Hall of Science at Berkeley.

As is true of all good teaching, teachers’ knowledge of each student ensures they provide appropriate support. So, the first thing that mathematics teachers can do is be aware that students who are ELs come with a wide array of experiences and needs.

  • Language Proficiency: Teachers should find out students’ English proficiency level as defined in their state/district. WIDA (World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment) levels provide one example. However, teachers must keep in mind that these levels do not describe all of the strengths and needs of individual students. Students will speak different languages which, for example, may or may not include cognates that could be helpful in the mathematics classroom (e.g., cuadrilátero in Spanish). 
  • Educational Background: Teachers should learn more about students’ school experiences. Some students may have had interrupted formal schooling. Other students will have been in the local school system for years, though their English language skills are not yet proficient. The kinds of support that these two types of students need will be quite different.

By getting to know each student’s needs, teachers can integrate strategies that will enable students who are English learners to deeply engage in mathematics learning. For example, in Ms. Henderson’s class, Thuy benefits from Ms. Henderson’s use of pictures or acting out the “plot” of a word problem. Alejandro does not need these supports, but he does need help explaining his mathematical thinking. Ms. Henderson gives Alejandro opportunities to rehearse his explanations with a partner and provides him with sentence starters that scaffold the wording of the explanations.  

In particular, three instructional principles have emerged from our work that can guide thinking about support for students who are ELs:

1.    Engage students with challenging mathematics tasks

2.    Support the development of students’ language in mathematics

3.    Employ and support multimodal representation or communication (speaking, writing, diagramming, gesturing, etc.)

Aspects of these three principles can and will benefit all students, but are essential for students who are ELs. Engaging all students, including students who are English learners, in challenging mathematical work (Principle 1) has to do with providing enough language access to students so that their mathematical learning opportunities are supported rather than compromised. The language may need to be simplified, but the mathematics should not be. Supporting the development of language (Principle 2) is accomplished through the careful use of instructional strategies such as in informed word banks, sentence starters, revoicing, multiple reads of mathematical problems, etc. Students also develop their mathematical language through opportunities to produce that language, which means they must be given frequent opportunities to use and hear written and oral language individually, in pairs, and in larger group discussions. The use of multimodal representation in the mathematics classroom (Principle 3) supports both of the first two principles. For example, opportunities to explain thinking around a visual representation, such as a mathematical diagram, permit the student to use the diagram to understand the mathematics and also provide visual support to explanations of thinking.

Our team has launched a website with instructional supports for mathematics teachers who work with students who are English learners. And, we will be publishing our findings in journals and sharing our findings at upcoming conferences. Watch the LTD website calendar for our presentations.

Updated: April 2016