A guest post by Linda Hardman
President of Linda A. Hardman Consulting, Inc., teacher, and developer of multiple award-winning K12 math products
Imagine Learning now publishes monthly guest posts in order to stimulate conversations about K12 education across the country. Opinions expressed herein are those of the individual author and may not necessarily reflect the official opinion of Imagine Learning.
According to the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), the percentage of English language learners (ELL) in US public schools grew in the 2012–2013 school year by 9.2 percent (i.e., 4.4 million students) compared to the prior school year.
Additionally, a new Pew Research Center study reported that a near-record 13.9 percent of the US population today is foreign born, with 45 million immigrants residing here.
A diverse group of young students
Because of these trends, students are significantly challenged to master academic language across the US.
The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for mathematics are also placing high demands in mathematics regarding abstract and quantitative reasoning, constructing viable arguments and critiquing the reasoning of others, and looking for/expressing regularity in repeated reasoning.
Students and educators are even more challenged with the acquisition of academic language as a tool for mastering conceptual and procedural understanding of mathematical standards and practices.
As a result of the increasing amount of ELL students and the challenges presented by the CCSS for mathematics, it is important for students to acquire both academic language skills and mathematical fluency.
Moreover, the same essential reading components and first-language supports provided in reading classes also belong in the mathematics classroom.
What is academic language?
Academic language refers to "word knowledge that makes it possible for students to engage with, produce, and talk about texts that are valued in school" (Flynt & Brozo, 2008, p. 500).
Basically, academic language allows students to actively participate in a classroom discussion and understand those problems that contain academic language.
Support for ELLs in the mathematics classroom
The Imagine Learning language/literacy program features basic and academic vocabulary words that also significantly help ELL students in their math classrooms, supporting mathematical understanding in a variety of mathematical practices:
Academic vocabulary within Imagine Learning (reframed for math)
These words are all important for students to know and internalize into conceptual understanding in both reading and mathematics.
A collaboration between language acquisition in reading and language acquisition in math would help students see these words in multiple contexts, including visualizations, text, translations, pictures, and mathematical problems.
This collaboration also would help students see how the vocabulary words fit in a mathematical context. Then, the new context would solidify students' understanding of words by providing them with a deeper understanding of math concepts.
Contextual academic vocabulary
Consider the word "compare" in a math context. This word is used throughout math as a way to differentiate two or more numbers, objects, or outcomes.
In a reading or science context, the word "compare" would have a similar meaning, providing students with multiple contexts in which they see and hear the same word.
Can memorizing word definitions help?
Students don't learn and comprehend mathematical vocabulary by memorizing definitions. They need to make connections that allow deeper retention of words and concepts.
Timez Attack video game by Big Brainz
Because today's students are wired for technology, game-based math-fact programs such as Big Brainz provide a way for students to be engaged with math facts, symbols, and vocabulary in an intensely memorable way.
When students are so engrossed in play, they learn more quickly and retain skills more deeply because of visualizations that are cemented in language development areas of the brain.
Students need multiple opportunities to practice language acquisition skills and to make connections between concepts.
By so doing, they also build a bridge between uses of multiple word representations and deeper understanding of formal vocabulary.
John Van de Walle offers a theory on how students learn mathematics (Elementary and Middle School Mathematics, Teaching Developmentally, Pearson @2013):
"Understanding is a measure of the quality of connections that a new idea has with existing ideas. The greater the number of connections to a network of ideas, the better the understanding."
How can we build upon language acquisition in the mathematics classroom?
Math games in the classroom
To truly build upon language acquisition, math educators need to present language in a way that students can understand by
-using visuals and engaging in meaningful games,
-providing demonstrations and modeling,
-offering real-world examples in context of prior learning, and
-making connections between reading & math.
In the end, when students connect reading to math in a fun, engaging environment, they multiply their fact retention and build a stronger mathematical foundation.
About the Author
Linda Hardman is a former math and technology teacher whose educational roles also include curriculum director, writer, editor, and publisher of mathematics and technology content for K-12 schools.
Linda has developed many award-winning math products such as HELP Math, Harcourt's Summer Studio Math, Prentice-Hall's Secondary Mathlab Toolkit, and Scholastic's MATH 180.
As a curriculum director for Tomball ISD (Houston, TX), Linda designed and implemented nationally recognized innovative technology solutions that dramatically increased student test scores.
Linda is a proven leader in content development strategies and implementations that lead to effective learning environments while engaging and inspiring students.