Every Student is a Mathematics Language Learner

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According to Stahl and Nagy (2007), “Language is a key component in the learning process. People’s perceptions of the world are largely shaped by their vocabulary knowledge. Indeed, words are the tools we use to access our background knowledge, express ideas, and learn new concepts” (p. 4). When students develop a robust knowledge of mathematical vocabulary, they are able to more effectively draw upon their existing background knowledge, construct new mathematical meaning, comprehend complex mathematical problems, reason mathematically, and precisely communicate their thinking about math (Sammons, 2018).

While the need for language supports—both content and context specific– for English language learners (ELL) in math classes is increasingly evident to educators, it is also important for teachers to realize how much these semantic supports benefit many of their other students as well.

Students arrive in school with vast differences in their vocabulary knowledge. Research shows that children from some homes are exposed to five times as many words as others from less vocabulary rich homes (Hart and Risley, 1995). To make matters even more difficult for some students, many mathematical terms are rarely encountered by them outside of school. Additionally, terms they believe they know may have very different mathematical meanings. For instance, compare the mathematical meanings of these terms to their everyday meanings: yard, foot, property, range, table, slope. Because so many students encounter substantial challenges when learning mathematical vocabulary, all teachers can support every student as a mathematics language learner regardless of his or her level of English language proficiency (Thompson et al., 2008).

Let’s look at a specific example of mathematical vocabulary support that can be used for ELL students, the use of Talking Point cards (Sammons, 2013). Teachers create Talking Points cards for use by learners in whole class lessons, small-group lessons, or independent math workstation tasks. They offer scaffolding that strengthens students’ understanding of mathematical vocabulary terms and also supports their efforts to converse mathematically with their peers. The cards often include relevant, but often unfamiliar, mathematical terms, nonlinguistic representations of those terms, examples and non-examples, and even suggested sentence starter stems to guide students in their initial efforts at math talk. Of course, just providing a Talking Points card has little impact unless students are taught how to use it appropriately and are aware that they are expected to use it as a learning resource.

Examples of Talking Point Cards

 

 

 

 

 

Many teachers find that the same language supports they use for ELL students, such as Talking Point cards, are also of immense value to all of their learners. Why limit their use to ELL students when so many other fledgling mathematicians have vocabulary deficits and are novices at mathematical conversations?

Rather than being another added-on responsibility for math teachers, in reality the mathematical language supports for ELL students are effective instructional strategies for all mathematics language learners whatever their English language proficiency as they participate in discourse-centered mathematics.


Laney Sammons, was a classroom teacher and instructional coach for 21 years before becoming an educational consultant. Since retiring from the classroom, she has worked with teachers of all grade levels throughout the United States and Canada to help them improve their mathematics instruction. Her book, “Teaching Students to Communicate Mathematically“, is available now. 

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