Recently a colleague sought advice on how to support a beginner ELL student in his math classroom. While many see math as a language of its own, a remarkable amount of learning in math is dependent on the language of instruction. For ELL's, who are learning both math content as well as a new language, this new challenge can feel overwhelming, particularly for those students who are brand new to English. Here are a few simple suggestions to support ELL's in the math classroom:
1. Create vocabulary banks. Use charts that provide key terms with L1 translations. It's ideal to create vocabulary banks that a student can keep and refer to in a notebook, but even better to have a larger classroom-sized version that makes up the "real estate" in the math classroom. Classroom sized references like this often become useful for non-ELL's as well.
2. Use sentence frames. Math sentence frames do a number of jobs for ELL's. They bring a context to math vocabulary; they provide a structure for extending English language skills; they provide support for ELL's in class discussions; and they help ELL's to apply new vocabulary to discussion and writing using correct grammar and sentence structure.
3. Use manipulatives. Using tools allows students to create concrete representations of abstract topics, thereby making content more comprehensible. Plus, it makes learning more interesting.
4. Adjust teacher talk/practice wait time. ELL's require more time to process information. Slow down speech and enunciate clearly. Reduce teacher talk, and use a variety of words for the same idea. After asking a question, wait a few moments before asking for a volunteer. Also, avoid "teaching in the air" and write questions on the board for additional language support.
5. Check for understanding using nonverbal cues. Receptive language (listening and reading) typically develops earlier than productive (speaking and writing). Give ELL's the opportunity to safely participate and "show they know" by seeking a thumbs up/thumbs down as a yes/no or agree/disagree. This option allows even brand new students the chance to feel included and offers opportunities for participation.
6. Use partner talk. Partner talk builds opportunities for student participation in discussions without the pressure of being in the spotlight. Partner talk also builds trust and positive collaboration among peers.
If you happen to use one or several of these strategies, I'd love to hear your feedback!