Teaching mistakes and learn from them. Scaffolding

Teaching Math to ELL Students can be challenging but fun for any educator. This lesson provides information about English Language Learners, provides suggestions for the class environment, and offers new math-teaching strategies.

Who is the English Language Learner?

An English Language Learner (ELL) is an individual who moves to the United States from a different county with little or no English experience. Imagine for a moment, you move to a new country with a new language. You have studied many subjects successfully , including math, in your home country. Now, everything has changed. School lessons are taught differently. Teachers and students try to help, but the language is so foreign. Some schools have ‘newcomer centers’ for new arrivals, but these centers can be costly, and federal law states that students are only allowed up to two years of intense English training.

Therefore, schools districts must often take on the task of developing programs within their schools to provide additional assistance to the ELL student.

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Why Math?

Math is one area in which English Language Learners tend to struggle. It is a common fallacy that ELL students will excel at math because they only need to know numbers. This notion is not necessarily true, because math is full of academic vocabulary and complex concepts that must be explained using words. It’s important that the teacher understands his or her students’ language proficiency level in order to plan math lessons. There are many strategies that can help when teaching math to ELL students.

The Classroom Environment

Lowering the anxiety level of any student is important when teaching a new idea, and for the ELL student, a lowered anxiety level is especially important for learning.

The stress of communicating in a new language and living in a new environment, added to the idea of learning a new concept, can be overwhelming. One method I always try to incorporate is the ‘there is no such thing as a dumb question’ rule. I want my students to feel safe to make mistakes and learn from them. Scaffolding information or providing the needed support in a variety of ways helps lower anxiety.

Math Strategies

There are a variety of strategies to help the ELL student succeed with math. Speaking slowly, repeating ideas, and using hand gestures are a few methods to enhance language comprehension. Math teachers often use manipulative or visual tools to illustrate specific concepts.

I like to use graphic organizers with Think-Pair-Share activities to help promote student interaction. Think Pair Share is an activity where students are asked to complete a task individually first. They then turn to a partner and share ideas.

The final step to to share out to the entire group.

Children participate in a Think share Pair activity
Think Pair Share

This activity help build confidence when language skills may be low. Using the student’s background knowledge also helps with learning new math material.Relating the concept to real life also engages the student. Many ELL students have studied a variety of math ideas in their home country and simply do not have the English language skills to show their what they know. Tapping into the background knowledge and creating an understanding among students, even are not yet fluent in the English language, is important.

Illustrating concepts with visuals is also helpful. I often show students examples and non-examples of vocabulary terms.

visual of Examples and Non Examples

Using background knowledge, through pictures, is a great way to assist with understanding.

Interactive games such as Cool Math or learning videos on sites like LearnZillion make math interesting for the ELL learner.

Math Vocabulary

Math vocabulary is sometimes difficult for a student, but especially for the English Language Learner. A great way to ease the stress of learning new vocabulary is using a vocabulary box. The vocabulary box is a strategy in which the student not only writes the new word and definition, but also draws a picture to show understanding and creates a real-world application. The box, once completed, is a nice way for students to study for exams.

Teachers can quickly look over the students’ finished boxes to see the level of understanding.

Vocabulary Boxes aid students in relating concept to the real world.
Vocabulary box

Lesson Summary

The idea that math is easy for ELL students is a misconception.

While, math does involve numbers that most students have been exposed to, it also has a great deal of academic vocabulary. It is important to present this material in chunks and with real life application. Strategies were suggested to help ease the anxiety of the ELL student.


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