How language-rich math can help students learn English

Credit: Allison Shelley for American Education

When Nicole Thompson teaches a math word problem to her fourth-grade class at Pajaro Valley Unified, she has the class read it three times.

After the first reading, students discuss with a partner the situation described in the problem word. The second time they discuss the numbers they see and what those numbers mean. The third time they talk about the issue and what they need to solve.

Thompson said the strategy really helps her students, especially those for whom English is a second language.

“It really enhances the understanding part of it,” Thompson said. “Our story problems are paragraphs long and students can get really bogged down looking at their math page.”

Thompson learned this strategy during a series of trainings on improving math education for multilingual learners, a term that refers to all students who speak a language other than English at home. The trainings were organized by the non-profit organization TNTP, formerly known as The New Teacher Project and the Center for Language Understanding at Stanford University, which focuses on improving teaching. and assessment of English learners and other students. TNTP offered the training program in 2021 to teachers from Pajaro Valley Unified in Santa Cruz County, West Contra Costa Unified in the Bay Area and Aspire Public Schools in the Central Valley.

“We know from our work that multilingual learners do not have the same access to grade-level assignments as their peers,” said Jeanine Harvey, Academics Director for Multilingual Learners at TNTP. “We wanted to show teachers that all students could engage in grade-level homework with the right materials.”

Jeff Zwiers is a senior scholar at the Stanford Graduate School of Education and director of professional development for the Understanding Language initiative. He said it’s important for students learning English to talk a lot with each other about what they’re learning and to ask questions like, “What do you mean by that?” Why do you do that? Where in the problem does he say that? What is an example of a ratio in real life? These questions require deeper discussion of ideas and more language, giving students a chance to both practice using language to describe ideas and to listen to how others speak – vocabulary, syntax and organization of words. sentences.

“They will hear about it from the teacher. But if they’re face to face with another person, there’s a lot more focus, there’s a lot more focus,” Zwiers said. “Very few kids will raise their hand and say, ‘Can you explain that?’ for the teacher, especially multilingual learners, who need it most, they won’t. But with another person, it’s a safer setting.

In addition to teaching strategies to support more student-to-student discussion in the classroom, TNTP staff worked with teachers to analyze word problems in their district’s math curriculum, identify vocabulary students would need to understand to capture the problem and design graphics or word definitions. to help their students.

For example, a math problem showed a school carnival box office sign with prices for different quantities of tickets and asked, “What number of tickets offers the best deal?” How would you suggest to the students who manage the ticket office to modify the list prices? Teachers found pictures to illustrate the meaning of words or phrases that multilingual learners might not understand, such as ‘modify’, ‘school carnival’, ‘best deal’ and ‘hold the ticket office’.

After testing a strategy in the classroom, the TNTP also worked with teachers to determine which students were participating, how they were using the language in the classroom, and how they could work to include more students in future lessons.

According to surveys conducted by the TNTP, the training program has improved teachers’ confidence. Prior to the training, only 40% of teachers at Pajaro Valley Unified and West Contra Costa Unified said they felt confident supporting English learners in their classrooms. Subsequently, more than 75% felt confident.

Many teachers also said the training helped them see that their students were capable of hard work.

“Sometimes we forget that students are more capable than we see. These trainings kind of opened my eyes to that. Now I see them more talkative, more able to do their jobs on their own,” said Juan Gonzalez, who teaches fifth grade at Pajaro Valley Unified.

Gonzalez said he enjoys seeing his students having conversations about math and using more complex vocabulary.

“They like to be challenged, they like being able to talk to each other, have conversations about math and how to solve problems. Whereas before, I was the one teaching them and not letting them explore on their own. We have to let go of their hand and let them struggle a bit,” Gonzalez said.

Rebecca Aldrich, who teaches fifth grade at Aspire’s Alexander Twilight College preparatory academy in Sacramento, participated in the TNTP-hosted training sessions in March 2021, followed by year-long coaching with TNTP staff. She said her students’ scores on i-Ready, a diagnostic assessment of math and English, have improved by 178%.

“For me, the proof is in the data. I really started seeing students taking back their own learning, applying what they were learning,” Aldrich said. She said students have also started using the same strategies to discuss and solve problems in other classes. “They have become more collaborative across the board.”

Suzanne Marks, TNTP academics partner, said she was struck by the number of teachers who did not have access to data on which students were learning English and how far along they were in learning English. language.

“Even for the teachers who had access to the information, I was struck by how infrequently and quickly they analyzed and engaged with this data. Many of them talked about getting it early in the year. year and that’s it,” Marks said.

Courtesy of Nicole Thompson

Students in Nicole Thompson’s class analyze a word problem.

Thompson said she’s seen more students raise their hands to participate out loud in class. She said the strategies have been particularly helpful this year, after a year of distance learning.

“My class this year is great, super quiet. They’ll be playing and laughing and having fun in the playground, but once we walk into class, they’re a very shy bunch,” Thompson said. really important to me to give as much time as possible to talk with each other.”

Karlisha Alston, a sixth-grade teacher at Pinole in West Contra Costa Unified, said she also uses some of the strategies she learned in math training in her English classes. For example, she asks students to discuss their answers among themselves, compare and contrast how they got their answers, and then revise them.

“I like it because when we start a lesson, sometimes the kids are very, like, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to learn this.’ When they work again, it lets them know, “You’ve learned something new. It’s good to keep learning,” Alston said.

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