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English Learners and Mathematics


Students, especially English Learners, need hands-on, concrete learning experiences. In addition, math should be tied to real world contexts. Often an English Learner will need those experiences brought into the classroom in order to give the student working knowledge of a math concept. Using manipulatives such as base-ten blocks, fraction kits, number tiles, etc. only enrich the mathematical experience.

While direct instruction followed by independent practice is traditionally used, English Learners benefit far more from group and peer practice. Content should be delivered and then practiced in a model that scaffolds the learning. For example, the instructor may begin with direct instruction that includes hands-on manipulatives, visuals, and specific vocabulary instruction. Students then are challenged to practice in groups, and then shift to partner work, and then (after much engagement in the vocabulary and mathematical processes) work as individuals. Groups and partners should be carefully selected in order to maximize the experience. The expectation should also be that all students are to contribute to the process. Every student, regardless of language ability, has something to contribute.

Although the teacher can be a beneficial teaching element in the room, the best and most powerful teaching models are the students. Using cooperative learning structures also give the students a chance to practice mathematical processes and engage in academic discussion in a safe setting. The more opportunities that the student can have to use academic vocabulary, the greater the chance this vocabulary has of becoming functional and providing true, lasting meaning. The cooperative structures give a safety net for exploring and learning together as a community. So not only does it allow for beneficial and engaging practice, but it also builds community as students encourage each other towards learning independence. Cooperative structures used without such expectations can breed dependent students. However, using those structures fluidly and correctly can be a powerful tool to achieving independent success.

Mathematics needs to be included in all classroom work. For example, during social studies, the student may mathematically analyze information read or provided in the text or class materials to provide the ratio of groups, the increases in populations, etc. By doing this the teacher is enforcing the comprehension of the material while reinforcing mathematical skills taught in the math class. This mutual support benefits the student in comprehension and understanding of the academic concepts and vocabulary. Likewise, information can be transformed in graphs and charts just as graph and charts are transposed into narrative. Again this reinforces the academic comprehension and vocabulary.

It is imperative that students be encouraged to use the first language in conjunction with the second language that they are developing. Opportunities to use a student’s first language encourage even the newest students to American schooling to participate. Allowing the students to use their first language gives them an opportunity to feel comfortable as they learn new processes. It also allows students to solidify concepts and fill in any gaps that the second language may have not accommodated.

Parents should also be encouraged to share their culture’s way of doing math. These other ways of computation have value and should be respected as equal to the traditional “American” way of doing things. It benefits all students to see a variety of approaches to a math task that all lead to the same solution.