Supporting English Language Learners in Math Class - Teacher Professional Learning | Literacy, Math | MTSS

Supporting English Language Learners in Math Class

No matter how you refer to them (English learners (ELs), English language learners (ELL) or English as a Second Language students (ESL)) the population of non-native English-speaking students is growing in this country. In fact, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) the number of public school students in the United States classified as EL rose by more than one million between fall 2000 and fall 2016, from 3.8 million to 4.9 million students.

As the EL student population grows, so does the risk of a widening achievement gap between these students and their English-speaking peers. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) found that in 2017, the average mathematics score for 4th grade EL students was 26 points lower than the average score of their English-speaking peers. That same year, the gap was even worse for 8th grade EL students, whose average mathematics score was 40 points lower than the average score of their English-speaking peers.

How to Help English Language Learners in the Classroom

These statistics clearly show that even though math deals with numbers, that does not mean that ELs will understand it. After all, math is taught in English, and math vocabulary for ESL students (and in some cases, all students) can be difficult to grasp.

Having a lesson plan for supporting English language learners in math class is critical to their success and growth. This webinar will help you put a plan together, walking you through specific math barriers for English language learners and offering strategies and techniques to help EL students overcome those challenges and achieve the language proficiency they need to reach mathematic proficiency.

Barriers for English Language Learners

In the webinar, you’ll learn about some of the key challenges educators face to support English language learners in math class. These barriers include:

  • Limited Background Knowledge

Some ELs may lack basic mathematic skills and the ability to grasp new math concepts as they are being taught. As an educator, you must be careful not to assume that limited background knowledge is an issue with all EL students. Does your student have a language issue, or a mathematics issue? Often, it takes extensive investigation and time to assess the math preparedness of EL students.

Keep in mind too that limited English language knowledge likely also includes limited math vocabulary for ESL students, even if they have a deep math background in their native countries. The limited knowledge of the English language makes it more difficult for EL students to understand what they are reading or hearing during math instruction. Not only is it the math language students struggle with, but also the language that surrounds it.

  • Cultural Differences

Mathematics itself is often considered a “universal” language. Numbers have the ability to connect people regardless of their culture, religion, age, or gender. However, it is important to remember that learning experiences vary by country and even by individual.

Some EL students, for example, may have very little or no experience working in cooperative groups or sharing or discussing solutions to problems. Others may struggle with symbols that have different meanings in their native language, such as commas and decimal points. Mathematical concepts can differ in how they’re approached in the United States versus other countries. And of course, things like currency, measurement and temperature are measured differently in different parts of the world. These differences can impede or slow down an EL’s understanding of what is being taught to them.

  • Linguistics

Everyday language is different from academic language. Often, ELs experience acquisition difficulties when trying to understand and apply these differences. Specific challenges include:

      • Mathematics vocabulary: Math vocabulary for ESL students can be difficult to decode and is specific to mathematics.
      • Association: EL students can struggle to associate math symbols with the concepts and language used to express those concepts.
      • Passive voice: These students also can find it challenging to grasp the complex and difficult structure of passive voice, which is commonly used in word problems.
      • Complex phases: EL students may have difficulty understanding the strings of words used to create complex phrases with specific meanings, such as square root or measures of central tendency.

Supporting English Language Learners in Math Class

Watch this webinar to learn more about how to help English language learners in the classroom overcome the challenges they face to reach math proficiency.

Dean Ballard: All right so let’s look at some of the challenges that we’re talking about for English learners. Limited background knowledge is a factor. Some EL’s may lack the basic mathematic skills and ability to grasp new math concepts as they’re being taught. However, we also have to be careful not to assume that this is an issue with all EL students, that it’s a language, or a mathematics issue, that’s what we’re truly trying to figure out. Often it takes more investigation and time to assess the math preparedness of EL students as opposed to it being only language only challenges. Limited language knowledge, likely also includes limited math vocabulary knowledge, but students may have a rich or a deep math background from their native countries. And of course, the limited knowledge about English language makes it more difficult to understand what’s being read and what’s being heard because it no only is the mathematical language students are struggling with, but it’s the language that even surrounds it.

Dean Ballard: Cultural differences make a difference for kids. Mathematics itself is often considered a universal language where numbers connect people regardless of culture, religion, age or gender. However, learning experiences vary by country as well as individually. Some EL students may have little or not experience working in cooperative groups or sharing or discussing solutions to problems. Some symbols have different meanings such as commas and decimal points, and mathematical concepts can differ in the way their approached, and often frequently, especially when expressing currency values or measurement or temperature, those thing are different in other countries. I mean, just think about standard measurement versus metric measurement. This can impeded EL’s understanding of the material being taught or slow it down.

Dean Ballard: Early in the school year teachers can survey their students and learn a little bit about their backgrounds in order to more effectively address those needs and better yet, to know which students can be called on to share some cultural variations because this kind of a discussion can be a rich discussion that deepens all students understanding of the mathematics.

Dean Ballard: Linguistics also plays a role. Every day language is very different from academic language, and EL’s experience acquisition difficulties when trying to understand and apply these differences. Some of these challenges are understanding mathematics vocabulary, that it’s difficult to decode and specific to mathematics. Associating mathematic symbols with concepts in the language used to express those concepts. Grasping the complex and difficult structure passive voice that’s really used all the time in word problems. And complex phrases, strings of words to use to create complex phrases with specific meanings such as square root or measure of central tendency.