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Adjust Your Teaching Styles for English Language Learners (ELL) in ESL/Bilingual Classrooms

Helping ELL/ESL Students with Math
Tobey Bassoff

Anyone who has paid attention to the direction that math has taken over the last several years will notice that it is highly verbal. I just proctored another one of our state math exams for an ESL student. Most problems are now embedded in words, which means that the days of the “naked problems” are all but gone. What does this mean for ESL students? It means that ESL teachers have to be focused more than ever on linking reading and writing to our math instruction. Following are some insights that I gleaned from the National Conference for Teacher’s of Mathematics in Denver, CO.

In November I had the opportunity to attend several workshops focused on delivering quality math instruction to students and one workshop that spoke about ESL students in particular. The important points that I took away were students need exposure, time and collaboration, and review to be successful in math.

ESL students need to be exposed to concepts using a variety of modes of instruction. Teachers must put students in the center of the learning as much as possible. Whether it is using manipulatives, singing, moving, or creating, brain research shows that students learn more when they are active participants in the learning. Some examples: set basic doubles facts to a rap with hand motions, have students develop the processes used to solve problems without numbers, set math rules to music or dance steps, etc.

Time and Collaboration
Time to collaborate and talk about what they are learning is essential to the success of all students, but ESL students in particular. When you think about it, ESL students must not only learn new concepts while building on concepts already learned, but they also have to acquire a new language in the process. One of the best ways to do this is to take advantage of what we call a student’s fund of knowledge.

Many of the bilingual students I instruct are highly conversational. It is part of their culture. I embrace their communication skills by encouraging them to talk about math. My rule is that they can talk as much as they like as long as it is about math, or whatever subject we happen to be exploring. One of my fifth grade students, Juan, was so shocked when I said this that he blurted out, “Miz, are you for real?” Upon further exploration I discovered that Juan had never been allowed to talk during class for any reason because he was quite the talker. We role-played examples of what I meant. Students wanted to talk about everything from their X-Box video games to their recent abuelo’s visit, so I said, “OK, how do we turn what you want to say into a conversation about math?” It was amazing what they came up with in the course of the class period. Students were helping each other formulate math problems, solve them using strategies, and explain them using English.

Practice is the way we learn to be proficient at a new task. Math is a skill where practice is exceedingly important. In order to be numerically proficient, students must know their basic facts and build upon them using strategies. Having students explain their thinking and practice what they have learned about doubling or tripling a number, for example, will only increase their ability to recall the facts when the concepts get more difficult. There are many resources available to help students do this, from dot cards to flashcards, from dice to board games.

Our ESL students must have time to review. If you consider how stressful it must be resettling in a new country, many of our ESL families do not have as much time as they would like to offer their children the opportunity to practice and review these concepts. Providing them review time is essential and it is often problematic for their teachers because of the breadth of material they need to cover.

If you have any additional suggestions that have helped your student become successful in math, please email me at tbassoff@yahoo.com


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