Series: Ideas at Work

Working “Through” Math with English Language Learners


It is tough learning two new languages at once. In the case of English Language Learners (ELL), the two “languages” are often English and mathematics. Young children in classrooms where the language of instruction is not their dominant language can have challenges when it comes to learning math language, particularly positional words. These children are not only learning concepts about relationships in space, which are challenging on their own account, but they also have to respond to the demands of comprehending in a new language.

The difference between “through” and “between,” for example, could be a difficult distinction for ELLs. Teachers can help students learn these distinctions by amplifying language.

Here is an idea. With small groups of children, create an obstacle course in your classroom where children would need to do the following: walk between two chairs, go under a table, skip around the water table, climb over a cardboard box, and crawl through a tunnel. As you model each movement, use language to describe what you are actually doing: “What am I doing? I am walking between two chairs,” putting an added stress on the positional word “between” and the word “two.” When it is their turn to go through the obstacle course, you can continue to ask all the students what each child is doing.

Then you can invite the students to verbally repeat the sentences, describing their movement as they go through each obstacle in the course. When everyone has completed the entire obstacle course, you can ask, “What did we do in this obstacle course?” They would say: “First we went between two chairs, then under the table, then we went around the water table, then over a cardboard box.” On another day, you can ask the children to create a different obstacle course and once again intentionally amplify language to help them learn the labels for the positional words.

Once children have experienced the action and been exposed repeatedly to the label for each prepositional word, you can continue to amplify the language by matching those words with drawings that illustrate the concept they represent.

Using the above activity enables ELLs to learn not only the labels for the positional words but gives them the linguistic context they need to use them. Doing the language activity with children answering all together provides differentiation in terms of levels of English proficiency. For children who are in the very early stages of English language development, techniques that combine language with action provide repeated exposure to conventional models of English. For children who are more fluent, the verbal component gives them the opportunity to use English in a conventional fashion without fear of being singled out.

Once children have experienced the action and been exposed repeatedly to the label for each prepositional word, you can continue to amplify the language by matching those words with drawings that illustrate the concept they represent. You can make these drawings into cards that can be used for games or to give students directions for lining up or during other transitions throughout the day.

These strategies to make content comprehensible and promote language development are beneficial to all students, but they are essential to ELL students in order to learn foundational concepts and the language we use to describe them.

Watch a lesson like the one described here and check out these other resources for ELL teachers.

Why is this important?

Learning math as a English Language Learner is no easy task, and positional prepositions are often the most difficult for students to grasp. Having students “act out” these prepositions can help to strengthen students’ understandings of the words’ meanings.

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Source: Early Math at Work,Vol. 2, Issue 5 • Copyright: © Erikson Institute, March 2011 • Content ID: NEWS017

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