Mathematics is sometimes regarded as a “universal language,” as it is grounded in abstract concepts such as numbers and shapes. And there is some truth to that! After all, two people who speak different languages may still be able to solve the same math problem and get the same solution. However, language is nevertheless essential for teaching math, as mathematics is inextricably linked to the language in which it is taught.
Proficiency in any language relies on two factors: language comprehension and language production. When it comes to teaching math to ELL students, we can look closely across lessons and consider, “What is the language load at this moment? Comprehension or production?” Then we can leverage targeted strategies to promote academic language development while also deepening mathematical understanding.
Students learning English carry a different cognitive load when they are also learning mathematics. What follows are ELL strategies for math that lighten the students' cognitive load so that they can show mathematical understanding while you maintain rigor in the lesson.
A note on language: we employ the common phrase English language learner, along with the acronym ELL, but we also recognize that this is imperfect nomenclature. Students who are learning English do not fit neatly into a single label.
ELL Strategies for Math: Language Comprehension
1: Use Routines That Break Down Word Problems
Word problems present an especially tough problem to students learning English. They’re hard enough for students who are further along in their English language development! Word problems demand that the reader parse plenty of non-mathematical vocabulary such as names, objects, jobs, and places.
Mathematics instruction will always include word problems, as that is how to articulate complex mathematical situations. Strategies like Three Reads, Stronger and Clearer Each Time, and Compare and Connect help break down the context of a problem and guide students in focusing on one aspect of the language at a time.
2: Focus on Mathematical Vocabulary
Learning mathematics is so much more than learning mathematical vocabulary. Spend time on the words.
For multilingual learners, vocabulary can sometimes be an entryway into the math. Students may have existing notions about words such as product, times, and one, for example, and by discussing them, you are connecting about ideas on both language and mathematics. Your students will help you learn other languages as you help them learn math, a symbiotic relationship.
Provide vocabulary instruction upfront both for mathematical vocabulary and non-mathematical vocabulary that appears in word problems students will confront in the lesson. Vocabulary instruction involves more than just reviewing definitions. It can include playing vocabulary games, reading math readers, and using tools such as word banks and anchor charts.
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