Cause two is more than one! I didn’t understand why it came so naturally to some students, but not to me. Looking back, however, I realize that I had an advantage writing prompts for esl students I wasn’t even aware of — I understood the language in which the problems were written, even if I didn’t understand how to solve them! As I spoke with teachers and did research for this article, it became very clear that making sure that students understand math vocabulary and have ample opportunities to use it are very important.
Solving word problems, following instructions, understanding and using mathematical vocabulary correctly — all of these skills require a language proficiency that sometimes exceeds our expectations. We tend to think of mathematics as a subject that does not require a strong command of language. For many educators, the challenge of bringing language and math instruction together is a relatively new one. ELL teachers who hadn’t taught content areas previously are now being asked to lead or support instruction in the math classroom, and many math teachers who don’t see themselves as language instructors are now responsible for providing effective math instruction to ELLs. High school math teacher Hillary Hansen learned just how big a role language plays in math instruction when she taught her first Basic Math course for ELLs last year.
She wanted so much to provide the students with the good foundation they needed, but she felt unable to reach the students or engage them in her lessons, and by the end of the year she was exhausted and frustrated. She learned about the importance of language acquisition, building background knowledge, increasing student language production, and explicitly teaching academic language. Hillary feels that she is providing them with the foundation they need not only to understand the mathematical concepts, but also to successfully interact within a math classroom in order to continue learning more advanced concepts. Following are some strategies that Hillary and some of the other teachers I spoke with found helpful this year, and that they recommend as best practices when teaching math to ELLs. Not only does it include teaching math-specific terms such as “percent” or “decimal,” but it also includes understanding the difference between the mathematical definition of a word and other definitions of that word. The following example, used in a presentation by Dr. In this problem, the student is instructed to “find x.
The student even put a note on the page to help the teacher in locating the lost “x”. The student understood the meaning of “find” in one context, but not in the appropriate mathematical context. I recently helped a math teacher create a Sheltered Lesson, and I was surprised to find that there were some vocabulary words that I didn’t understand. My lack of familiarity with the words hindered my ability to do the math problem and gave me a deeper empathy for ELLs who struggle in the same way with vocabulary and comprehending math assignments.
Demonstrate that vocabulary can have multiple meanings. Help students understand the different meanings of words such as “table” and “quarter,” as well as how to use them correctly in a mathematical context. Encourage students to offer bilingual support to each other. Students will understand material better if they explain it to another student, and the new student will benefit from hearing the explanation in their first language. Provide visual cues, graphic representations, gestures, realia, and pictures.
Offer students the chance to work with objects and images in order to master vocabulary. If there aren’t enough items for each student, use manipulatives on the overhead or posted throughout the classroom, and demonstrate the vocabulary in front of the students. Identify key phrases or new vocabulary to pre-teach. This strategy will help students decide which math function they should apply.
See hotlinks for more references about math vocabulary. Teacher Xiao-lin Yin-Croft has encountered this pattern in her classroom of bilingual Chinese students in San Francisco. She has developed a very creative way to use her students’ background knowledge of math as a stepping stone for other language learning. She does this by accelerating math instruction at the beginning of the school year and then building on what students have learned in math in reading and other content areas. I demonstrate the logical thinking process while translating words into pictures and, finally, into number sentences. Soon, they start to explain their own thinking after reading complicated word problems that involve several steps.
They correct each other, and argue about which number sentences they should use to arrive at the correct final results. Even if you aren’t accelerating math instruction, however, there are a number of ways to help students master word problems. Krick-Morales offers suggestions in the previously mentioned article, such as explicit instruction of key vocabulary, daily practice of problem solving, repeated readings of the word problem together as a class, and hands-on activities such as movement, experiments, or drawing to help students comprehend the problem. My colleague Hillary found that sometimes her students would get “lost” in a problem simply because they didn’t understand the context. Following are some tips to help in building background knowledge of students. Modify the linguistic complexity of language and rephrase math problems. Students will understand the problem better if it is stated in shorter sentences and in language they understand.
Guide students to cross out the unnecessary vocabulary in word problems. Doing so allows students to focus on the math function required. For example, one problem Hillary’s students came across referred to a “school assembly. Even though the meaning of that phrase wasn’t important in the solving of the math problem, students didn’t know it wasn’t important, and the lack of understanding contributed to their confusion. Build knowledge from real world examples.