Written by Leslie Hamburger and Haiwen Chu of Quality Teaching for English Learners at WestEd.

As part of WestEd’s Quality Teaching for English Learners initiative, we know that English learner students can engage in rigorous instruction. Using the QTEL approach, we help teachers develop the expertise necessary to engage English learner students in rigorous instruction across content areas, including mathematics.

A key component for English learner students to succeed in mathematics is talking among peers in the classroom. However, not all classroom talk is effective. Students need to interact with each other in ways that allow them to explore new ideas, ask questions, and clarify understanding.

This type of quality dialogue possesses three characteristics:

  • it is sustained;
  • it is reciprocal; and,
  • it focuses on disciplinary ideas and practices.

Sustained and reciprocal talk provides students with opportunities to explore mathematical ideas and engage in mathematical practices, such as attending to precision or looking for and making use of structure.

Sustained talk is characterized by long utterances (more than one or two words) and multiple turns taken by different students of sufficient duration that allows English learners and their peers to fully explore ideas. Talk is reciprocal when it is unscripted and not dominated by one party. Rather, as students discuss ideas, they engage with their peers in adding new ideas or examples, challenging or rephrasing claims, and revisiting assumptions or cases.

Such sustained and reciprocal talk only happens by design.

When teachers design and build in opportunities for mathematical interactions, English learner students will be able to develop new understandings. The design of such opportunities must attend simultaneously to conceptual understanding, the development of language, and engagement in mathematical practices.

Our recent article in Mathematics Teaching in the Middle School’s 2019 focus issue on “Making Math Social” joins these elements of design together to assist teachers in enhancing opportunities for English learner students to talk about mathematics. In the article, we provide a variety of engaging invitations and supports for English learners to talk purposefully in math class, as shown in the graphic below.

Stay tuned for future posts that will highlight specific types of designs and examples in action.

Learn more about Quality Teaching for English Learners and our summer institutes for teachers.

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