Exponentially Advancing in the Language of Mathematics

by Cristina Zakis

We often hear when discussing how to support English learners in acquiring academic language: “Well, at least math is universal.” But is it really? When the directions on a test of mathematics or on a worksheet are in English, is that language universal? In mathematics, students are asked daily to read, analyze and solve word problems that can often have culturally dependent expressions or idioms. Students from Latin American countries may take some time to get used to the American way of expressing dates and the way we work through a long division problem.

So, what can teachers do to empower English learners as they acquire the language of mathematics? There are a few strategies that have been proven to work. 

  1. Cognates: Many math words in English have cognates in other languages – especially Latin languages like Spanish. A simple Google search for “cognates and geometry” will produce a list that can be shared with the students and parents in order to assist them with making connections to their prior knowledge.
  2. Visuals: It seems obvious, but it is important to make even the directions as visual as possible. Teachers may use slides or even student-created posters to assist with some of the directions that are more commonly used and word problems. Illustrated word cards may be displayed or students may store them on a key ring for reference.
  3. Partner Work: Allow students to work together utilizing the Partner Reading and Summarization strategy in order to promote fluency and comprehension when reading word problems. Allow students time to discuss a process or a solution in their primary language and then give them support in the form of a sentence frame or report frame in order to share their thinking in English.
  4. Previous Knowledge as an Asset: Teachers can allow students to work out a problem the way they learned how to do it in their previous country and then show them how their work equates to the way the problem is solved in America while acknowledging their correct answer without penalty.
  5. Preteach Vocabulary: As presented in the ExC-ELL lesson model, investing 10 minutes at the beginning of a lesson to preteach five Tier 2 words or phrases will position the students to build their confidence when reading and discussing the mathematics problems.

What are some ways that you have supported the acquisition of academic language in mathematics for English learners? We look forward to hearing your successes and ideas! Submit them to cristinazakis@gmail.com.