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3: Supporting English language learners with the language of mathematics

Issues for English language learners

English language learners (ELLs) come from diverse backgrounds and have a wide range of proficiency in both their first language and English. Learning a new language is a complex process that requires a significant period of time. Students normally pick up social communication skills first, but their competence with these may mask difficulties with mastering academic language, which generally takes 5–7 years. Every learning area of the New Zealand Curriculum has its own language, and this is particularly true for mathematics.

This resource provides some general strategies for supporting ELLs to build their mathematical language in context.

Why is this important?

ELLs are often assessed as being below or well below expectations in mathematics, and teachers assume that they lack mathematical knowledge. However, because these assessments depend on the students’ ability to comprehend the mathematical language in the tasks, the assessments often do not measure ELLs’ mathematical knowledge fairly or accurately.

Assessment of ELLs in mathematics is often oral, using GloSS or IKAN to gain a clear picture of students’ mathematical proficiency. Despite this, the structure of the instructions and questions in these assessment tools, and the vocabulary that is used, can prevent ELLs from understanding the task. They are also often unable to show their understanding of mathematical concepts either orally or in writing because of the language demands. Students may still have this mathematical knowledge, so the question teachers need to ask is: How can I construct this task so that my ELLs can understand what is required and can show their mathematical understanding? Using equipment or diagrams in your teaching and having students use symbols or drawings to record their responses may elicit the information that you need.

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