January 5, 2021

Over the past several years of working with middle grades mathematics teachers, my team and I have gained a number of insights about mathematics teaching and learning of students who are emergent multilingual. One overarching principle from this work is the importance of a strengths-based approach focused on looking for student competence.

A growing number of mathematics educators teach students who are emergent multilingual, that is, students who are classified by schools as “English learners.” It is critical to highlight that these students bring multicompetence to the classroom—they are learning an additional language while also learning grade-level content.

We’ve identified three teacher practices that particularly encourage the participation and mathematical reasoning of students who are emergent multilingual:

1. Promote problem-solving. Don’t avoid challenging problem-solving tasks because of language. Instead make sure everyone has access using strategies such as the 3 Reads, which encourages students to determine what the problem is about, what they need to do, and what the important information is. Giving students adequate time to work on and discuss one or two challenging tasks may support more learning than lots of repeated practice on the same skills.

2. Encourage student participation and highlight mathematical contributions. Students who are emergent multilingual may struggle to explain their thinking in English, so it’s especially important to support them in producing and sharing mathematical explanations. Use various strategies to assist their sharing:

  • Provide students time to share with partners before sharing with the class
  • Ask students to gesture as they talk through an approach
  • Encourage their use of mathematical diagrams to add clarity to descriptions

Make sure to focus on students’ mathematical strengths in their use of language, diagrams, and calculations. Let your knowledge of their mathematical experiences, their language history, and their educational background guide you in supporting them.

3. Facilitate productive partnerships. Have students work in pairs to try out new ideas, help each other, and share approaches. Establishing shared values about participating and listening to others is critical. You can also use sentence starters or other supports to facilitate students’ mathematical communication with partners. Consider your students’ personalities when you set up partnerships, and intervene if a student isn’t getting adequate opportunities to share their thinking.

Engaging in challenging math problems, sharing ideas, and working with others are all key to student mathematics learning and success. Consider trying these practices in your classroom and let us know how it goes! Resources:

Jill Neumayer DePiper is a mathematics education researcher at EDC. Her research and development focus on equity and broadening participation in mathematics, particular for students who are emergent multilingual.
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