Guest Blogger | Jessica Allen, Teacher of Mathematics in Puebla, Mexico

By the time we step into the classroom as teachers, we are aware that each person has different capabilities and reveal the areas in which they excel through various means. Their character, academic ability, life skills, and a myriad of other ideas cannot be analyzed by the same criteria for any two students. Yet, we may often fall into this trap of judging students based on their classroom participation and grades alone.

However, for a few students, classroom performance shows little of their actual capacity. This is especially true of students attending school while learning their second or third language. When we have these students in our class, we need to be aware of a possible language barrier that keeps them from being as quick with responses and as involved in group work as they would like to be. Sometimes these individuals are incorrectly judged and may even be considered less capable when this is not the case. Instead, we should identify the unfortunate disadvantage they may be experiencing and incorporate some interventions to help these students without hurting others in the classroom.

Classroom Interventions During Instruction

1. Be careful with notation. As with most of the tips that follow, this will help each student in your classroom grasp concepts more quickly. However, it is essential for the English learner because the slightest variation from the language they are coming to know can be a big roadblock. These students may not be able to fill in the context quite as well as a student proficient in the English language. So what may feel like a natural shortcut for you or for many of your students will push your English language learners behind. This places them at an unfair disadvantage that was not intended and can easily be avoided.

When considering your notation usage, explain any abbreviations you plan to use. For example, if you use “apt,” will that be short for apartment or simply the word apt? Do you plan to use AKA or ASAP? These could leave language learners stuck in the middle of a sentence while you have already written another four.

Also, consider any terms you may use interchangeably. In math we have y = 2x and f(x) = 2x. Do not assume that students can jump between those without instruction.

2. Use multiple representations. Sometimes when a student is processing spoken words, the time needed to form an understanding can be sped up and concreted when a picture is used. In my classroom, I use a lot of drawings and encourage students to draw pictures before starting a math problem. If it helps me, a teacher proficient in English and math, I can only imagine how much it benefits someone learning both.

Using multiple representations gives students a way to connect with learning and problems on different levels. It only makes sense for a student who hears and sees a topic to be able to make more connections than one who only sees the subject matter. Many times I have seen that when I explain a problem, students remain confused. Yet, if I include a chart, it tends to eliminate the language barrier, and students are able to go from there.

Multiple representations can come in the form of

  • Spoken words
  • Written words
  • Charts
  • Graphs
  • Pictures
  • Demonstrations

Classroom Interventions for Individual Work

3. Use assessment techniques before students deeply engage to check for understanding. There are many paths you can take to have a student show you what they understood. In my math classes, one of my favorites is to have students draw a picture of the situation at hand. It may be based on a problem that I wrote on the board or one found in the text.

An example would be while solving for triangles. The students use the information given to them to draw a setup of the triangle and label what they know in the picture. When students have issues in English, they may easily mix up the angle of elevation and angle of depression. Or, they might mark the shortest side when given information about the longest. Having students draw out a picture can help you as a teacher understand what information is missing for these students to be successful.

You could also have students write a couple of sentences about what you are asking them to do. Or you could have them tell you what your expectations are. Whatever type of check you use before students engage will be beneficial to keep the student from being off track and becoming frustrated in looking for ideas you were not searching for. Clarity of instructions is a key topic in any successful classroom. However, language learners may need a bit of extra attention here.

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4. Allow for thinking time. If you are standing in front of your class, rapid-firing questions and notice that only one or two children are participating, there may be good reasons for this. Do not assume the rest of the class is not understanding what you are asking or is unable to follow along. You have not found the student with the greatest understanding, but one who is comfortable in the language and confident speaking in front of the class. Other students will need time to process your question and a safe environment to speak out. Try asking a question and giving students at least 30 seconds to think before blurting out an answer. This changed results drastically in my classroom. It kept my low-performing students and my English language learners from checking out and awaiting the response from another student.

Awarding students individual time to work on a problem or question before being lumped into a group will also be advantageous to the language learners as well as other students. When students are immediately placed into groups, it is natural for one or two students to dominate and never leave time for slower speakers to voice their thoughts. However, if students are given time to individually work on a problem before coming to a group, the student who struggles to speak will have the opportunity to gather their thoughts and feel more comfortable sharing what they know.

Another key element to test for understanding and not language is to give language learners more time on exams. They often need time to process what is written as they read it in English, translate into their native language, perform the task, translate it back into English, and then write the solution. This happens especially in the math classroom. I teach in an all-English school in Mexico, and most students have a high level of English. However, when I leave them to work on their own, I hear them counting in Spanish, and they admit that they think in math in Spanish. If I were to time them on exams, I could possibly misunderstand their ability based on how much they completed in the given time period.

5. Provide opportunities for improvement. All students make mistakes, and those mistakes are a learning tool. Take the pressure off students who say they have to be perfect the first time and give them opportunities to show improvement. This is crucial for language learners, especially as they may completely misunderstand problems the first time. It may take seeing their errors in order to understand which part they incorrectly interpreted.

Suppose you do not feel comfortable with retakes of homework and exams. In that case, there are also other options for supporting language learners such as giving partial credit, offering the opportunity to give oral explanations rather than written ones, or personally checking in with them throughout an exam. Again, a student may have completely missed the mark, but should their grade be a reflection of their English abilities rather than what they understand about the subject at hand?

Considering the Cultural Barrier

6. Pay attention to equity and culture. Do your problems even make sense to your students? For example, could a student from the middle east be completely confused by why you are trying to fill up a pool in 50-degree weather in some math problem? Situations like this might not seem like a big deal because we are used to seeing random problems in mathematics, like buying 50 watermelons. But, for students coming from a different culture, this may cause confusion. Instead of finding how much water is needed to fill up this pool, they might interpret the problem according to their cultural experience and get an unexpected output. With a language barrier that does not allow students to fully understand a problem, they may be led by instinct into what the problem would search for in their culture.

Secondly, your students may feel excluded by the ideas presented in class, and from this, they have no desire to interact with the material or feel as though it is not for them. For example, in many textbooks, there are problems that ask students to calculate plane ticket costs for a vacation to Europe. Most of my students will never ride on a plane. Only a few of them have had the opportunity economically to travel outside of the city. Therefore, I am culturally sensitive and instead provide problems that make sense in the given context. Not only can I avoid confusion by avoiding flight terminology that my English learners do not understand, but I also can provide them with an opportunity to make sense of mathematics in a way that is useful to them and preserves equity.

While some of these tips may be new, with time, they will become second nature, and your English language learners will thank you for providing them an opportunity to keep up with their peers. Even more so, many of these ideas apply to all students and can be invoked even in the absence of English learners. However, when you consider techniques to improve outcomes for language learners, remember to be aware that oftentimes their capabilities are not reflected in the classroom because the language prohibits them from acting as their natural selves. You can show interest and compassion with your method of classroom instruction.

Tobin, Kenneth. The role of wait time in higher cognitive level learning. Review of Educational Research. 57.1,69-95. 1987
Alegria, Adelina. Supporting English language learners in the science classroom through critical pedagogy. International journal of science and mathematics education. 12. 99-121 (2014)

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