English-Language Learners Opinion

Stronger Together: Language and Math Development

By Contributing Blogger — February 26, 2018 5 min read
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This post is by Monica Alatorre, Senior Manager for Development & Communications at Envision Education.

The scene: A typical traditional math class in America.

The players: A student who is an English learner; her classmates; her teacher.

The action: The teacher leads the students through a math lesson, showing students how to find the answer to an equation and then having them practice the work. Students practice; their answers on the practice sheets tell the teacher if they have learned the content or not. Mid-way through the lesson, our English language student is pulled out of math class so she can go receive English language tutoring.

Result: The English learner student ends up with some English language skills, but without robust experiences of using language in order to learn, and with some math skills, but not the full classroom experience her peers are receiving.

The scene above plays out in many schools around the country: English learner students are taken out of the content learning environment and placed somewhere else to receive much needed language instruction. Meanwhile, the math lesson continues, and English learner students must later catch up on what they miss while they are out learning their new language. Also, back in the classroom, the students who remain are learning how to solve equations, but perhaps not engaging in meaningful conversations that help them develop and expand their mathematical reasoning. The teacher may or may not know if the students understand the concepts, or if they have simply memorized the mechanical steps to solve equations.

But what if there is a different way to support English learners, one that can enhance both language development and mathematical reasoning simultaneously, while also being beneficial for all students, not just English learners?

There is indeed such a thing, according to Deeper Learning Coach and math educator Jim Malamut, of Envision Learning Partners. Recently, Jim went to a Dallas convening hosted by the English Learners Success Forum, an organization that connects content developers with English learner experts, in order to improve efforts to address the needs of English learners. He was there to talk about the important connection between mathematical reasoning and language development, and to share design thinking in order to help teachers develop curricula and instructional practices that intentionally support language and mathematical development together.

Jim describes the approach: “In a traditional math class, teachers show students how to solve a problem and then the students practice those steps. The new focus, though, is on how mathematical reasoning is about understanding concepts, identifying patterns, connecting ideas--all of which are rooted in language and communication. It makes sense, then, to help students understand math by helping them communicate their ideas and craft good arguments about why equations work the way they do.

His work is about designing math curricula that intentionally develops students’ ability to communicate and use language, in tandem with the exploration of math concepts. The Theory of Action proposes that when these efforts are integrated, and English learners have purposeful and engaging ways of using language while learning, both mathematical reasoning and language development improve. The key is to create tools and curricula from the beginning to support English learners, so that ways of simultaneously developing math and language skills are built into the foundation of lessons and units, instead of being afterthoughts or add-ons that teachers are expected to come up with themselves and adapt to--or force into--math curricula.

This is a new vision for American classrooms, one in which teachers are giving students multiple ways to develop arguments about an equation or math problem, as well as scaffolded opportunities to demonstrate--using emerging language skills, critical thinking, and communication--that they are gaining progressively deeper understanding of math concepts.

For Jim, one of the most compelling things about his work on language and math development is its potential for impacting English learners and other students who are far from opportunity. The chance to create more powerful and effective ways to engage students who are learning English--as well as those who think they are “bad” at math--means a chance to increase equity and level the playing field for more and more students. As a math teacher, he has always focused on how best to help students think critically about math concepts; curricula that brings together math and language development represents a breakthrough approach that he believes is essential to transforming the way math is taught to our nation’s children.

Jim is a recent addition to Envision Learning Partners; he is one of five new team members who recently joined ELP from the Stanford Center for Assessment, Learning, & Equity (SCALE). Bringing Jim and SCALE on to the ELP team allows us to support even more schools and districts in creating engaging, supportive learning communities, through projects like his work with the English Learners Success Forum. In fact, SCALE has been a partner of Envision’s from the beginning, helping us create our rigorous Portfolio Defense assessment system. And now, the new ELP marries the art and science of performance assessment, building on a partnership that began over a decade ago. We too are stronger together, as we scale our work and advance towards our shared goal of equity in education: giving all students real choice and power over their futures.

For more information on Jim’s work integrating language and mathematical reasoning development, send him an email at jim@envisionlearning.org. You can also come to ELP’s Deep Dive session (look for: Directing the flow of mathematics learning through structured language channels) at the Deeper Learning 2018 conference in San Diego at the end of March


Celebrate the new ELP with us! If you’ll be at the Deeper Learning conference, we invite you to join us for a Happy Hour with ELP, 4:30 pm on Thursday March 29th, at The Lot, 2620 Truxtum Road in San Diego. For more info, click here.

The opinions expressed in Learning Deeply are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.