ELLs Count on Language Support in Math
April 6, 2018
At her district's newcomer center, English as a Second Language teacher Barbara Gottschalk would engage parents in a visual exercise: compare a math textbook from 20 years ago to the one in use today. The former, a familiar reproduction of the kind of math newcomers most likely experienced in their home countries, was defined by rows of computation. In the current textbook, however, words abound.
"You could tell just by looking at the two that even a student with a strong background in math will need some language support in a mainstream math class," says Gottschalk, who teaches at Susick Elementary in Troy, Michigan. A student with interrupted or limited schooling, she adds, will need even more language support.
With the Common Core State Standards and, especially, the skills identified in the Standards for Mathematical Practice, mathematics has increasingly emphasized conceptual understanding and reasoning, in addition to procedural know-how. "Language is the entirety of the mathematics classroom," says Megan Rowe, a math teacher at Borah High School in a linguistically diverse district outside Boise, Idaho. "From the language I use when I'm teaching to the language students use when they're reasoning among their peers—I don't know how you could ever teach mathematics now without focusing on language."
For newcomers, Eatmon recommends gradually increasing language demands. "Phrase questions that require them to produce a minimal amount of English at the beginning," she recommends. Choice questions (that require a yes/no, true/false, and ways for them to communicate nonverbally via a word card or hand signals) are a good place to start. As newcomers develop confidence with language skills, stretch expectations for discourse.
"Newcomers need special handling for a while," says Rita MacDonald, researcher at WIDA and the Wisconsin Center for Education Research (WCER). "However, students are newcomers for the short term; they are language learners for a long time."