Teaching mathematical language

To provide the best possible learning environment for ELLs, teachers need to accelerate their students’ acquisition of English at the same time as they build their conceptual knowledge in mathematics. Teachers can do this by identifying the language associated with mathematical concepts and knowledge and teaching it specifically before students are expected to use it in abstract contexts.

Researchers agree that language teaching is more effective when introduced in context. Teaching content and language concurrently accelerates learning in both. The dual focus provides multiple opportunities for recycling concepts, grammar, or vocabulary associated with that learning area (Gibbons, 2002).

The critical change occurs when teachers shift from seeing the literacy demands as barriers to students’ mathematical learning to seeing the demands as affording opportunities to support the development of students’ abilities to communicate mathematically.

          Doerr and Chandler-Olcott, 2005

Most teachers are very skilled at planning for subject learning in terms of content, tasks, and resources and at linking activities with achievement objectives. They also need to consider what language is integral to developing their students’ mathematical proficiency. The language used in mathematics is often subjectspecific, so teachers need to be aware of these demands as they plan mathematics lessons.

To help build your ELLs’ mathematical language, you may need to:

  • identify mathematical language structures and vocabulary during the planning process, for example, “doubling”, “doubles”, “double equals two times”
  • alert them to new mathematical vocabulary, before the concepts are taught
  • plan for both mathematics and language learning
  • provide learning opportunities where the use of mathematical language is necessary and where students are scaffolded and supported through:
    • modelling
    • differentiation of tasks
    • drawing specific attention to the language structures
  • link mathematical concepts to appropriate real-life contexts by using props or materials, such as picture cues or prompts, sport or food contexts, books, or mathematics materials
  • give students who share the same first language opportunities to discuss ideas together in order to clarify their thinking
  • use a modelling book to show students’ understanding and working in diagrammatic and/or symbolic forms (Hattie, 2009)
  • set up co-operative learning situations, which give ELLs opportunities to articulate their problem-solving strategies and reasoning within a group. This will support improvement with both language and reasoning skills.

Back to Resource 3: Supporting English language learners with the language of mathematics