At the 2014 Innovations Celebration, Innovations instructor Rebeca Itzkowich and associate instructor Jill Sapoznick led a seminar entitled “Navigating Language in the Math Classroom,” in which they explored language-related issues that can arise during math time. Some of the ideas in this presentation came from Supporting English Language Learners in Math Class (2009, Math Solutions) by Rusty Bresser, Kathy Melanese and Christine Sphar, a great resource about this topic.
English Language Learners can struggle with math, but with some planning, teachers can guide them to adopt the language they need to master math along with the rest of their class. Here are just a few tips that were discussed.
Create a “math dictionary”
As they come across more and more math terms, it might be helpful for older students to keep a dedicated math notebook with definitions for all of their new vocabulary. Besides being a good source of reference, writing down these words and defining them in their own voice helps reinforce their meaning.
Language is a tool. We need to make those tools available to kids so their thinking can become deeper.
Teach using gesture
Especially with younger children, using gesture while teaching can be extremely helpful. While informally polling the participants in the seminar, it was found that many used the same gestures when explaining math concepts, such as making a circle-motion with their hands to express “all-together.” A child who does not understand a particular word might recognize an intuitive gesture.
Students, too, will gesture when the words aren’t coming. “It’s the teacher’s job to provide them with the language that their gestures are expressing,” as Itzkowich put it. This child is clearly thinking hard to solve a shape puzzle, but his vocabulary isn’t to the point that he can communicate his ideas; an adult, however, is there to fill in the blanks for him.
Give students opportunities to speak to each other
Once it’s clear students have grasped the foundations of a math concept, it’s important to let them use the words themselves. Speaking with other students, either in small groups or by having them turn-and-talk during whole class discussions, is a great place to start. Students might feel more comfortable trying out new vocabulary without the pressure of speaking in front of a larger audience.
Itzkowich and Sapoznick emphasized that it will eventually become easier for students to use, rather than avoid, more advanced math vocabulary. Instead of talking around what they mean, students will gradually begin to speak to one another with more clarity by using words that precisely articulate the math concept they are trying to explain.
Ask for whole-class, rather than individual responses
Rather than calling on individual students for answers, prompt your class for choral responses. Giving an incorrect response in this manner is less likely to make students feel isolated and embarrassed, since most of the time other students will hear the whole group response without noticing what their immediate neighbor says.
This interactive math activity utilizes this concept in a creative way. Designed to help English Language Learners practice vocabulary describing spatial relationships, the class vocalizes various positional prepositions to describe their classmates’ actions as they navigate an obstacle course.
Provide a structure
A simple but effective way to introduce a new math concept is to model it, provide a name for it, and have your students repeat that name. For more complicated ideas, creating sentence frames can be a helpful way to get the ball rolling. Comparing how many items two people have, for instance, can be communicated with the sentence frame:
I have ___. You have ___. ___ is greater than ___. I/You have more.
Give students this starting point, and then let them try it out for themselves.
Avoid confusion with non-math terms
“Mary bought eight oranges. Then she bought three apples. How many pieces of fruit did she buy?”
From the perspective of some English Language Learners, this is a very confusing problem. One potential source of confusion is the irregular past-tense of buy. A student who understands all of the math in the problem still might answer incorrectly, because they’re looking for information about what Mary “buyed.”
Be careful with noun choice in word problems as well. While food words are often safe to use, the association between oranges, apples, and fruits might not be immediately obvious to some.