If I were to ask you whether English Language Learners (also called LEP for Limited English Proficiency) did better in English or math on the MCAS test, what would your answer be? Most likely you would guess math. After all, you might argue, the language of math is universal. Solving 5 x 5 doesn’t require any English, correct? Well you would be wrong. In Salem, MA 19% of the Hispanic students Failed the math MCAS vs 9% who failed English. For LEP students, 43% of students failed math vs 18% who failed English.
“Perhaps more than any other subject, teaching and learning mathematics depends on language. Mathematics is about relationships: relationships between numbers, between categories, between geometric forms, between variables and so on. In general, these relationships are abstract in nature and can only be brought into being through language.” And educators will tell you that understanding and expressing abstract ideas are the last set of language skills an English language learner will acquire. Consider the following problem:
Susan is one year less than half the age of Angela. Express this in an equation. Wow, this is a tongue twister for native English speakers never mind English Language Learners.
(Answer S=1/2 A – 1)
So how can we better teach our ELL students? Teachers must figure out a way to remove the abstraction from the lesson by teaching math via experiences or pictures understood by the learner. Activities and curricula need to be designed to allow learners to bring their experiences and interests to mathematics. While an ELL student might not understand the problem: solve 30% of 26 (finding the term “of” confusing), the student may be able to understand it in context of shopping. For example, you went to the store and saw that the sweater that was $26 last week was reduced in cost by 30%. So you bought the sweater. By waiting a week, how much money did you save?
Once the concept is understood, different vocabulary can be substituted: “reduced in cost” can be replaced by “discounted by” and then eventually “the price discount was 30% of”.
Another idea would be to have students create a problem for themselves and then depict it in a picture so they understand it completely. For a simple example: There are twice as many students as desks” is likely to be expressed as “D=2S” rather than “S=2D”.
First start with the question: are there more students or desks? Then actually draw the students and desks. Restate the problem using different vocabulary; The students equal twice the number of desks. The number of students are twice the number of desks.
Preparing activities that involve group discussion can also help move these abstract ideas to more easily understood ideas. Again, as an example, using architecture or fashion design to teach geometric shapes and principle might help students understand the concepts better. Baseball statistics might bring more clarity to fractions and decimals and even probability. Working in teams across common interests may make learning math more interesting as well. Breaking kids into groups of shared interests (baseball, fashion, cooking, architecture, politics, business, etc.) and allowing them to develop math problems related to their interest will help them understand the math concept by applying it to something of interest to them.
Once the concept is related to a common shared experience, and the vocabulary is understood, then the math problems (or numeracy) can be presented and practiced using multiple vocabulary alternatives.
Certainly teaching math to ELL students requires different teaching strategies in order to remove the abstractions. Applying math to our everyday lives is certainly an effective strategy. In fact, I would argue this strategy would work better for everyone. If math was taught more as applied math, we wouldn’t hear the constant refrain “why do we have to learn math – it has nothing to do with my life and what I want to do”. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
 “ESL in the Mathematics Classroom” By Dr. Richard Barwell
University of Ottawa, Faculty of Education http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/literacynumeracy/inspire/research/ESL_math.pdf
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