Where is the intersection of the Mathematical Practices and Strategies for ELLs?

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I have heard many conversations recently focused on the question, “How will English language learners be successful with the increased language demands in the Common Core State Standards for Mathematical Practice?” Certainly this is an important question and there is much we can do to make high quality mathematics instruction more accessible to students who are also learning English. But, rather than focus on the challenge that the CCSS Standards for Mathematical Practice might pose, I suggest we focus on the opportunities they provide for ELLs.

Let’s have a look at three of the Mathematical Practices and how the ideas of that practice coincide with what we know about supporting ELLs:

Math Practice 1: Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them. This Practice centers on students selecting strategies that make sense to them (which means that teachers can press for a variety of solutions and honor strategies from different cultures. In addition, this Practice includes an emphasis on illustrating (as well as explaining) how a problem is solved. ELLs need the opportunity for productive language (saying and writing), and in Math Practice 1 we see the press to engage all students in productive language (and visuals) to say and write what they know.

Math Practice 5: Use appropriate tools strategically. To be mathematically proficient students need to be able to select tools that help them think about a problem. Tools include, but are not limited to, calculators, manipulatives, rulers, and visuals.   The value of this Math Practice for ELLs lies in two key features. First, tools provide visuals and concrete connections for learners to help in both language learning and mathematical understanding. Second, like with Math Practice 1, the student chooses tools that make sense. This varies by learner and may vary based on a student’s cultural background.

Math Practice 6: Attend to precision. All students benefit from explicit attention to vocabulary! After increasing her focus on mathematics vocabulary in her Algebra I class, one of my graduate students reported that for the first time ever her students were using appropriate mathematical language in sharing their mathematical thinking. When the teacher attends to appropriate terminology, students use the appropriate terminology. For ELLs, increased attention is needed for using vocabulary and the extent of this depends on whether the student has an understanding of the term in their native language or not. Visuals and translations can aid in developing vocabulary (Math Practice 5).

The Mathematical Practices, posted on EVERY grade level of the Common Core State Standards provide an extraordinary opportunity to increase access and opportunity to ELLs. Take a look at the other 8 Math Practices. What connections do you see in what is recommended for developing mathematical proficiency and what is recommended as effective strategies for ELLs?

To hear more of this discussion, join us tonight, March 21st at 5:00pm ET.  Register now for the webinar Creating an Environment for ELLs to Succeed in CCSS Content and Mathematical Practices.

Jennifer Bay-Williams

About Jennifer Bay-Williams

Jennifer M. Bay-Williams is a professor of mathematics education at the University of Louisville (Kentucky). She taught elementary, middle, and high school in Missouri and in Peru, and she continues to work in classrooms at all levels with both students and teachers, regularly providing professional development on effective teaching practices. She has served on the board of directors for TODOS: Equity for All, is past president of the Association of Mathematics Teacher Educators (AMTE), and was the editor for the 2012 NCTM Yearbook on Professional Collaborations. Bay-Williams has authored numerous books to support high-quality mathematics instruction, including the new Mathematics Coaching: Resources and Tools for Coaches and Leaders, K–12 (with Maggie McGatha, Beth Kobett, and Jon Wray) and Elementary and Middle School: Teaching Developmentally (with Karen Karp and the late John van de Walle), the 8th edition and a new professional development edition, as well as the Field Experience Guide for it. In addition, she has co-authored the Teaching Student Centered Mathematics grade-band books, 2nd edition, aligned to the Common Core State Standards, which will be released in March 2013. She has been a regular contributor to the NCTM teacher journals as an author and editor.
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