Math Inquiry and the English Language Learner – A Cautionary Tale

“Inquiry learning is not possible if language dev is not in place. How can a stdnt choose an inquiry if OL is ‘at risk’? #ORFR”   –  @CarmelCrevola

I recall watching a video by Sir Ken Robinson where he describes teaching as an art form.  That teachers are artists because they can connect with their students and know what would be appropriate to apply at a given time, to enhance learning.  Sir Ken more accurately explains:

At the heart of all great professions is a deep power of connoisseurship.  It’s true of great musicians, it’s true of all virtuosi that they know what is appropriate here and now.  And great teachers are like that, they have a repertory of skills and possibilities and knowledge, but their skill is to apply it here and now, with you to know what would be appropriate.

This idea, while motivating, makes me feel cautious to some degree.  Since moving to a new school and region I have, for the last 4 years, been implementing math inquiry in the classroom to a room full of English speakers.  Presently, I teach a group of 31 grade 7 & 8 students.  Of this group, two are English Language Learners (ELL) but they are stage 4, exceptional writers, and regular contributors to class discussions.  However, this reality will change.  I will need to learn the art of teaching math inquiry for stage 1 & 2 ELL students.

As I reflect upon this, some immediate questions come to my mind:

Will I know how to appropriately enhance learning for ELL students, within a math inquiry framework?

What is the best way for me to develop the math context for ELL students, other than through my familiar methods of conversation and writing?

What strategies can I apply to help ELL students tap into their strengths and share their math thinking with the class, and in turn benefit from the ideas of their peers?

Will ELL students feel part of the community of mathematicians I am trying to nurture, through my use of a math-talk classroom?

Perhaps for you the reader, this is already your reality.  Namely, seeing the benefit of a math inquiry program but perhaps struggling to meet the needs of the ELL student who may not be able to engage completely within a math-talk community.  Not because of any lack of intuitive math sense on the part of the ELL student, but largely because their language development may not be where it needs to be in order to genuinely contribute in an inquiry process.

The sharing of your experiences, resources, or strategies that might help me address my concerns noted above, would be of great help.

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5 Responses to Math Inquiry and the English Language Learner – A Cautionary Tale

  1. Royan Lee says:

    That tweet from Carmel really made me reflect as well. I’ve been wondering about the same thing with ELL students. I’m going to be annoying and answer your questions with another question.

    Is being at risk with language the same as being an early ELL stage learner? I would think there are different issues for a student approaching a math inquiry from a language delay as compared to an English language continuum. What do you think?

    • paulaniceto says:

      Hi Royan, as always, thanks for the thought provoking comments and questions. To be perfectly honest, this is one giant blind spot for me. I definitely need to start thinking about these ELL concepts because my teaching reality will be changing. Already there is a growing need for ELL support in the primary grades at the school I work at (I am an INT teacher).

      As is part of good teaching, it is important for me to ‘know my learners’ and so familiarity with the English Language Learner continuum is a start. A next step for me would be to check out the wealth of info on our very own BWW. That and surround myself with smart people, like yourself, on twitter.

      When you raise the question about ‘language delay’, are you referring to native English speakers or ELL students who have a gap in their learning owing to a significant break in their education?

  2. Andrew says:

    I had a new student join my homeroom class on Monday and this is my first experience, along with my schools, with any ELL students. We are looking at every avenue for support, but I feel that I did have a breakthrough in Math.
    My new student brings his own iPad and is able to translate my instructions/concepts. While we practice, we (my students included) encourage him to try and say the terms we are using. I learned very quickly that he can keep up and understand what we are doing, now it is breaking the language barrier. We find right now that we can only reinforce at an elementary level of language skills, but being persistent with using the appropriate terms in math will only help the student learn.
    I can respect the frustration that is being felt by a student who not only has to learn content, but also in a foreibnlanguage. Unfortunately, the reality is that our job requires us to make sure that the every students needs are met, and I feel that I can only do that in English.

    • paulaniceto says:

      Hi Andrew, thanks for taking the time to leave a comment and share your personal experiences with supporting ELL learners in the classroom.

      I echo your sentiments about respecting the frustration felt by a student who has to learn content, but do so in a foreign language. It would be analogous to me having to express my thinking, in writing, in French. Sure I may have bits and pieces of French knowledge but it is not enough to adequately express what I am thinking, completely or genuinely. Imagine now, that I am handed a French children’s book to “help me” learn French. Not sure if I want to be reminded, as an adult, that I can only read a French book written for a 6 year old.

      I guess this is where the ‘age appropriate’ resources issue comes up. But like you said, with personal devices like iPads being prevalent, do we need to rely on published resources?

      Could we, like you have done, provide an environment and opportunity for the ELL student to use an iPad to help them manage their learning?

      Thanks, again.

  3. paulaniceto says:

    Hi Bill, not a problem. I appreciate the offer to re post. What is your take on this issue?

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