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

Breaking the Language Barrier in Mathematics
Tobey Bassoff

Marilyn Burns is arguably the leading expert in providing professional development for teachers in the area of mathematics. In the Winter 2005 edition of Leadership Compass, a publication from the National Association of Elementary School Principals, she wrote an article called “Building a Teaching Bridge from Reading to Math. ” Burns is convinced that one of greatest hurdles at the elementary school level is a teacher’s content knowledge. (Marilyn Burns, "Building a Teaching Bridge from Reading to Math." Leadership Compass. Winter 2005.)

In her experience, teachers approach math with a mixture of fear for the subject, lack of confidence, and general discomfort. However, when instructing in literacy they are usually not only comfortable with the subject matter, but also excited. Burns believes that the trick is to get teachers to apply what they know and love about teaching literacy to improve their teaching of math.

In comparing Burns’ article to a January 2005 article entitled “Teacher Skills to Support English Language Learners,”(Deborah Short and Jana Echevarria. “Teachers Skills to Support English Language Learners.” Educational Leadership (December2004/January 2005) pp.8-13.), it becomes clear that there is a link between the two. Deborah Short and Jana Echevarria (January 2005) note that when English Language Learners struggle with schoolwork it may be attributed to their lack of background knowledge rather than to intellectual ability. Could the same hold true for math? If students haven’t been exposed to certain ways of solving problems or math problems that are embedded in words, then they are at a disadvantage; not from what they aren’t capable of, but from what they have yet to be exposed.

Also, our ELL students are struggling to catch-up in so many ways. Many of them are becoming acclimated to a new culture, a new language, new rules for socially acceptable behavior, etc. Now toss in a “new” way of doing math. It would be surprising if they didn’t struggle a bit. If we could help them by applying what we as teachers know and love about teaching reading strategies to the strategies we use to teach math, then Marilyn Burns and I agree that students would learn more easily. We want students to develop a love of numbers, be fluent with numbers, comprehend numbers, and have strategies for understanding complex problems involving mathematical concepts. Many of the reading strategies we teach students, like using schema, context clues, and word attack skills could apply to their understanding of math problems.

My best hope for you is that the next time you think about teaching math to ELLs, try linking reading strategies to math. You might be pleasantly surprised by the results. If you have a story or comment to share, please email me at tbassoff@yahoo.com


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