How Can English Learners Participate in Mathematical Talk as They Are Learning a New Language?

Photo of English Learner Elementary School Students

This blog post was written by Haiwen Chu, Program Associate in the Teacher Professional Development Program at WestEd.

As English learners develop understanding of mathematics, they need supports to participate fully in classroom discussions. Carefully designed learning opportunities can invite English learners into quality interactions defined by two essential features. First, instead of students giving one-word responses to teachers’ questions, student talk is sustained and reciprocal. English learners must have opportunities to elaborate their ideas and respond to the ideas of others. Second, as English learners engage in talk, they co-construct important mathematical ideas, representations, or connections.

In designing these quality interactions for English learners, information gaps are often useful. When there is an information gap, one party has information that the other needs to complete a task. The two parties must communicate to bridge the information gap. They succeed together when they communicate well.

For example, one student has a shape that she does not show her partner. She must describe it in sufficient detail so that her partner can draw it accurately. For English learners, this activity provides opportunities to talk and engage in quality interactions. As one student gives more details about the shape, the other responds by asking questions. With his or her partner’s words, each student can construct a drawing. For English learners, this activity offers opportunities to discover more effective ways of bridging the information gap with language.

Watch the video, Designing Mathematical Interactions that Promote Information Flow, and you will learn about even more structures that enable students to:

  • Bridge an information gap
  • Reveal reciprocal mathematical relationships
  • Co-construct mathematical representations

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