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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

Many math programs today, at least at the elementary school level, require basic English language skills to decode math problems embedded in words. Here are a few strategies that you may find useful to build number sense when language becomes problematic.

First of all, if a student is to understand the operation required, then they must have access to the terminology. Make posters that link numbers to words. For example: 

Addition ( + )  Subtraction ( - ) Multiplication ( x )  Division (÷)
how many in all
all together how many
joined together
total more than product
how many left 
less than total
sum difference
how many in all 
share equally
divided by
how many in each
same number in each

A natural extension of the posters is to make small reference guides backed on construction paper and laminated. You can pass them out to students who are struggling with a word problem, or who need language support. An added feature to the card would be a guide to cardinal and ordinal numbers. For example:

first - 1st 
second - 2nd 
third - 3rd 
fourth - 4th
fifth - 5th 
sixth - 6th

Another way to prepare students to solve problems involving words is to have them draw a quick picture of what they think the question is asking. (This is much like planning for writing using pictures that tell the beginning, middle, and end). Then, they can link the numbers to the picture. This strategy has worked very well with my visual English and Spanish language learners. 

Finally, use number talks to introduce vocabulary. Number talks is a strategy, used by national math consultant Ruth Parker, adopted by my district that has students talk through mental math. You put a problem on the board and you ask the students to put their thumbs up in the air when they have the answer. (This avoids embarrassing/distracting the students who still need time). When you decide that most of the class has the answer, then you ask for answers. Write all the answers (up to three or five) on the board. Have each child talk through his mental math process. 

The discoveries that they make on their own is astounding and the language learners pick up so much vocabulary. This is a very powerful way to get ESL students talking and connecting mathematical language to actual operations.  

Questions or comments? E-mail Tobey.


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