Friday, October 28, 2011

Mathematics for English Language Learners

When it comes to English language learners, mathematics can be very tricky. Many teachers make the mistake of thinking that "math is a universal language" or that "everyone understands numbers". This is simply not the case, and math may be just as tricky for your ELLs as science, social studies, or any other language-based subject.

Here are some things to think about when it comes to ELLs in the math classroom:
  • Even though the student may have been in third grade in his or her country, that does not mean that they should be able to pick right up in your classroom. Just as learning standards and objectives vary from state to state, they can often vary widely from country to country. The student may not possess the basic mathematical knowledge you expect your students to have. 
  • The flow of the problem may look different when working out the math. Some countries may also use different symbols to signify basic operations.
  • In some countries, they use commas when we use decimals, and they use decimals when we use commas. For example:
    • In the US, the number three thousand would be written 3,000. In other countries, it is often written 3.000. In the US, the number three and two tenths would be written 3.2 while in other countries it would be written 3,2. 
So, what does this mean for an instructor who has a math class full of ELLs?

Provide problem solving opportunities for your ELLs.
Coggins et. al (2007) remind us that problem solving is more than one or two step word problems, but more like "figuring out what to do when you don't know what to do" (p. 10). True problem solving requires not only critical thinking on the part of the student, but will also motivate them to communicate in English with their classmates in order to solve the problem. This can be beneficial for both their language learning and their mathematics learning. Furthermore, when you ask students to defend their reasoning, you have the opportunity to help them deepen their understanding. For lower level students, you can provide sentence frames to assist them in expressing their knowledge and ideas (for example, "I know the answer is __________ because......").

Provide opportunities for every student to speak and ask questions.
Often times as teachers, this can be the most difficult task. We must retrain ourselves to do several things. First, though the urge is strong, resist calling on the most eager students. Provide enough wait time that every student has a chance to think of the answer. I often tell my students to take one minute to think about the question without even raising their hands. After one minute, I repeat the question, and allow student to raise their hands. I work hard to make sure that each student has a chance to answer at least one question during a lesson. In larger, non-ESOL only classrooms, this may not be possible, but try to include as many students as possible during the lesson. The use of think-pair-share strategies and cooperative group activities allows each student a chance to discuss the topic (Coggins, et. al., 2007, p. 11).

Develop mathematical language in a way that increases understanding of the content.
In Language Arts, we often go over important vocabulary words before the lesson or the reading. However, in mathematics, this might not be the most effective way to present important academic vocabulary. According to Coggins et. al (2007), the concept that underlies a math vocabulary word must be systematically taught first by activating prior knowledge on the topic, experiencing the concept, and discussion using informal language. Once students understand the concept or idea, then the formal mathematical language can be taught. Coggins et. al (2007) also suggest that we not teach "key words" or phrases in word problems. The authors believe that this strategy causes students to focus less on the meaning of the story problem, and can lead to mistakes in choosing an operation when common phrases are used for different purposes. Instead, help students focus understanding the actions and mathematical concepts within the word problem.

Provide plenty of scaffolding.
Scaffolding occurs when the teacher provides a specific type of learning support, without reducing the complexity of the problem or telling the student exactly how to proceed. Begin by activating students' prior knowledge on a topic and relating it to something students are already familiar with in the "real-world". For example, when teaching money, you might relate it to the idea that students must pay the correct amount for their lunch each day. Cooperative groups or pair work is an excellent way to provide scaffolding opportunities for students- they can share ideas and ask questions with their peers, and build upon each person's understanding to improve their own understanding of the concept . Also provide visual, tactile, and auditory aids. A student might know what a penny is, but might not know the word. Providing a physical example will help that student solidify the concept (Coggins et. al, 2007).

Use concrete materials in the classroom to teach and reinforce concepts.
Concrete materials can help students to focus on a concept and the relevant vocabulary simultaneously. For example, using concrete manipulative to teach about hundreds and thousands can give the idea of "hundreds" meaning through tactile and visual experience, but you can also emphasize the relationship between hundreds and thousands much more easily using concrete materials. Also allowing students the opportunity to draw in order to solve a problem can be equally effective if manipulatives are not available.

I don't want to overwhelm you now, but I hope that some of these tips and suggestions can help you as you struggle to make mathematical learning comprehensible to your English language learners!! Please do not hesitate to pipe in with any questions!!


Coggins, D., Carroll, M., Coates, G. and Carroll M. (2007). English Language Learners in the Mathematics Classroom. Thousand Oaks: Corwin Press.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Monster Math and Langauge Arts Fun!

For the past two weeks, I've been working on a set of printables that I've been using with my 2nd grade ELLs to reinforce ideas that they've been learning in their mainstream math and Language Arts classes. As I've developed them, I've been using them with my own Kiddos and they've loved Mimi and Max the monsters! These printables can be used as stations, small group work, and independent work, depending on the needs in your classroom. My wonderful husband designed the graphics for these activities!

Click on the picture below to find this fabulous little gem in my TpT store and have some MONSTROUS fun before Halloween!

Friday, October 21, 2011

Bulletin Board Fun

I know I promised pictures of our Colors of Fall poems when they were finished, but we have not quite had time to finish them because this week has been taken up with Benchmark testing. However, the ESOL teacher that works with Kindergarten and I worked on this bulletin board between testing, and it turned out so well, I had to share!!

Disclaimer- This idea is not mine, but I got it from a Scholastic E-book entitled "Language Arts Bulletin Boards".

Thursday, October 20, 2011

A freebie for my followers

Lately, I've been working with my 4th graders a lot on understanding characters in literature. So, I created a powerpoint on character traits. I've posted it to my store, and I'm offering it for FREE to the first 10 who make it!! Click the picture below to get yours before they're gone! All I ask is that you please rate the item if you download!

Monday, October 17, 2011

We are the 99%

"I am a teacher. You are able to read, write, do arithmetic and much more because of people like me. Each year, I am expected to take your children further than ever before with fewer materials and resources. I spend thousands out of my own pocket to educate your child. Due to budget cuts, I am also nurse, lunch monitor, counselor, and janitor. I spend long hours after school away from my family, grading papers and planning lessons. I am overworked, underpaid, and I am still told I do not do enough. I am the 99%."

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Strategy of the Week

Information Gap Activity 
This type of activity gets students talking to one another about a relevant topic in a content area, such as Famous Women in History.

Before class, create a chart with important information from the reading, and at least three categories. Then, remove some information from the chart. This is the chart for student A. Add the information back, and remove the opposing information. This is the chart for Student B.  Then, have students take turns asking and answering questions to fill in the missing information on their chart.

I have included an example below. An activity such as this requires students to form questions, such as “Who was born in Skojpe, Macedonia?” or “Who was famous for…?” It also requires students to speak, listen, read and write, all in one activity. Click here for a free (no-frills) PDF of the activity below. In my TpT store, you can find ready-made information gap activities on the Famous Women in History and Human Organ Systems.
Information Gap- A
Animal Type
Interesting features

Frogs do not drink water but instead absorb it through their skin.

Grasslands and Savannah in Africa

Warm tropical places in Central and South America

Birds (Aves)

There are over 350 different types of Parrots in the world.

Warm shallow water with lots of sea grasses

Information Gap- B
Animal Type
Interesting features

Wet environments such as rainforests, lakes, and ponds in many countries

Grasslands and Savannah in Africa
Can run over 60 miles per hour- faster than any other land animal.

Iguanas can live for 15 years or more.

Warm tropical places in South America, Australia and Asia


The male seahorse has babies instead of the female.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Best Halloween Ever- reading fun with 4th grade

Recently, during my 4th grade pull-out groups, we have started reading The Best Halloween Ever by Barbara Robinson. I always did The Best Christmas Pageant Ever with my middle school ESOL students, and they always really enjoyed the story. Before leaving middle school, I ordered a class set of The Best Halloween Ever and The Best School Year Ever which I never got to use. So, I decided to use them with my 4th graders this year to help reinforce the skills they're learning in their Language Arts class (which I also plug-in to three times a week).

We started out by activating and building our background knowledge. First, we looked at the book, read the back, and made some predictions on what the book might be about. We also decided that it definitely took place in Fall, since the story is about Halloween. I wanted my students to really think about this time of year, and activate their knowledge in that area. First, we thought about Fall and Halloween, and used a five senses chart to think about things we see, hear, smell, taste, and feel during this time of year.

Next, I had different Fall colors posted around the room (red, orange, brown, yellow, green). I had students rotate to the different colors and write down things or ideas they associated with these colors and Fall. We ended up with a great list of Fall items for each color. Finally, after seeing an example and receiving a pattern to follow, students wrote a "Colors of Fall" poem. Here's my poem that I wrote as an example for the kiddos:

Fall is orange, red, brown and yellow.
Orange is the color of football time in Tennessee.
Red is the taste of candied apples.
Brown is the taste of Halloween candy and the sound of dead leaves crunching under my feet.
Yellow is the feel of a blazing bonfire and the smile of a jack-o-lantern.
Fall is orange, red, brown and yellow.

Once we completed our rough drafts, we did some peer editing. Then, as a class, we discussed all the sights and sounds of Fall and Halloween, and how those are related to our book. When the students have completed their final drafts, I'll take pictures and post them

The kiddos are working on characterization in Language Arts, so in our next session, we actually began reading the story. We went through the Understanding Character powerpoint (available in my TpT store!), and used the examples to practice asking ourselves what the character's actions tell us about the character and his or her personality. After reading the chapter, we worked as a class to fill in a four-square organizer on chart paper about the Herdmans. The four categories were: what the narrator says about the Herdmans, what the Herdmans do, what the Herdmans say, and what the Herdmans look like. We will continue filling in the chart as we read. I always have students tell me the page number where they found the infomation and we include that so that they get practice at finding information in the text. Finally, students used their own checklist to decide which character traits described the Herdmans.

The students are really enjoying the story so far, and the activities we are doing with it. They love talking about these characters, because let's face it, the Herdmans are characters that kids love to hate. Pictures and more to come as we finish our unit! Stay tuned!

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Strategy of the Week

Some teachers think that magic squares are only good for practicing mathematical reasoning, however, this is not the case. When you create a vocabulary magic square, students have the opportunity to practice both math and vocabulary.
Magic squares can be created in a variety of ways. You can have words in the squares with numbered definitions below, or you can have words in the squares and a Cloze paragraph below with numbered blanks. Students match the words with definitions or blanks in the paragraph and write the correct number in the square. In the end, students add the numbers in the rows and columns to check their vocabulary work. Every row and every column should add up to the SAME magic number. This strategy can be used and adapted in a variety of ways- to introduce new vocabulary, practice old vocabulary, or practice context clues.
You can differentiate by having higher level students figure out the number on their own, or by giving the number to lower level students so they can check their work as they go. See the example magic square below. Can you find the magic number?











Place the number of the statement that relates to the vocabulary word or phrase in the box. All columns and rows add up to the same MAGIC NUMBER if you have done it correctly.

A flower is the (1) _____________________ part of most plants. The brightly colored and sweet smelling part of the flower are called the (2) _____________________. The flower also has small leaves under the petals called (3) _____________________, and either male or female reproductive organs.
The female reproductive organs are called the (4) _____________________. Inside the female reproductive organs are the ovaries which produce the flower’s egg, called an (5) _____________________. The tube on top of the ovary is called the (6) _____________________. It is topped by a
(7) _____________________, which collects pollen during pollination.
      The male reproductive organs are called the (8) _____________________. This is made of an
 (9) _____________________, which produces pollen, and a filament.

In other news, here's a picture of an activity I do each year with my newcomer students. We go around the school and take pictures of important locations (office, cafeteria, auditorium, gym). Then we print the pictures and write sentences about the place, such as "We eat lunch in the cafeteria". Students get to practice important vocabulary that they will need to communicate at school, as well as get to know the school and practice creating their own sentences. The pictures stay up in the classroom all year for students to refer to. I apologize about the picture quality, but this was taken with my Droid, also, this is only part of the display.