Over the past 25 years, the number of school-age children in the U.S. who speak a language other than English at home has increased from 3.8 to 9.9 million. These students often lag behind their peers academically and schools are struggling to find ways to increase their level of achievement. The challenges in mathematics class are especially difficult.
With funding from the New York City Department of Education’s Office of English Language Learners, EDC provides professional development to educators to improve mathematics instruction for English Language Learners (ELLs) in middle schools across the city. Of the 1.1 million students in New York City, 13 percent (141,173 students) are ELLs—children who come from homes where a language other than English is spoken and who score below a state-designated level of proficiency on a test of English language skills.
The professional development sessions, offered in partnership with the Lawrence Hall of Science, bring together teams of mathematics coaches, English as a second language specialists, assistant principals, and classroom teachers. During the monthly sessions, participants engage in challenging mathematics problems, which they then bring back to their schools for their students to work on, and in subsequent sessions, they analyze how their students solved the problems.
“The analysis of student work helps us separate out what are the math difficulties students are having and what problems are caused by language issues,” says EDC Project Director Mark Driscoll. Making this distinction is crucial because many teachers mistakenly believe that ELLs cannot handle challenging mathematics problems and that things must be simplified for them; and many teachers do not realize that it is more an issue of developing mathematics communication and language.
“It seems counterintuitive, but maintaining high standards and having students do cognitively demanding work helps them with language development,” says Driscoll. He points to the success the project is having in using EDC’s Fostering Geometric Thinking funded by the National Science Foundation. “We have found that when ELL students do geometry they use diagrams, gestures, and language to express their ideas. This gives teachers multiple opportunities to paraphrase what the students are saying and to put their words into mathematical language.”
Driscoll believes that students are best able to develop mathematical language if teachers employ multiple means of communication in the classroom. “Mathematics communication is more complicated than words and the meaning of words. Students need to be able to negotiate the multiple meanings of words—‘base,’ for example, has an everyday meaning and a mathematics meaning—and they need to be able to make an argument or offer an explanation. This can be done by actively engaging students, especially ELLs, in writing, presenting, and discussing mathematics, rather than having them be passive learners and have the material just presented to them.”
Driscoll credits his work with ELLs in helping to improve the Fostering Geometric Thinking program. “Our work with the ELLs caused us to take a step back and take a look at our assumptions, particularly in regards to language issues. We reshaped the materials requiring that students provide both a verbal and a pictorial explanation of their work.”
Originally published on June 30, 2007