George Lucas Educational Foundation
English-Language Learners

Improving Math Curriculum for English Language Learners

Leverage the expertise of educators from different disciplines to create a more effective math curriculum for English language learners.

September 9, 2019
Teacher helping a student with math using white board
©iStock/lisafx

Rachel, a passionate leader in a New York City–based public school, was concerned about the math outcomes at her school, especially for English language learners (ELLs), who made up about a third of the school community. Rachel knew that the students at her school had tremendous learning potential and that their teachers were motivated. The students had improved in English language arts, but mathematics scores had remained stagnant, particularly for ELLs.  

Several math teachers said that the school’s adopted curriculum didn’t support the kind of instruction required for ELLs and they were creating supplemental resources, but the resulting units lacked cohesion.  

Research points to the role of carefully designed, high-quality learning materials. High-challenge, high-support materials allow great teachers to engage students in quality interactions that scaffold and motivate students. Creating a curriculum inquiry team is a way to leverage the knowledge and expertise of educators from different disciplines to establish a more inclusive, engaging, and effective curriculum.

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Collaborate and Determine Student Needs

Rachel built a core team of motivated math and ELD teachers, and together they conducted a four-step needs analysis.  

1. Explore where the current needs are by surveying teachers. The English Learners Success Forum provides a simple questionnaire, “Taking the Pulse,” which helps educators to reflect on their practices and students.

2. Analyze current data. In reviewing test scores of EL students, ask if there is a disparity between these students and their peers. Why might that disparity exist? Look at evidence of student reasoning as they solve problems. What can they already do well? Are difficulties related to language, or are they mathematical reasoning issues that are creating the challenge? Are students able to productively struggle with cognitively demanding problems, or do they give up easily? 

3. Capture evidence of students’ classroom language use by collecting and analyzing writing. Writing notes about student conversations or regularly recording conversations can be useful in assessing how students work together. Do EL students get equitable opportunities to speak? Are students held accountable for explaining their reasoning? How are students writing about math? Do they become more mathematically formal and precise in their language over time? Do they revise and improve their reasoning and mathematical language as they negotiate concepts together? 

4. Formulate goals based on data. One obvious goal would be to improve the test scores of ELLs relative to their peers, but assessment results are not the only objectives. More nuanced goals might include moving students from informal, everyday ways of talking about mathematics into the registers that construe more technical and precise meanings, or providing learning materials that promote engagement in math for all, but particularly for those who are struggling.

Once the team has a better sense of the strengths and needs of both their teacher practices and students’ learning, it is easier to identify what curricula are needed.

Dig Into Instructional Materials

Rachel and her team studied current literature on what constitutes a high-quality curriculum responsive to ELLs’ needs. Responsive learning materials include some essential components, such as the following: 

  • Rich, intellectually demanding content that provides both mirrors and windows to diverse experiences.
  • Opportunities to use mathematical language in real-world applications or to solve problems using familiar contexts as a stepping-stone to mathematical concepts.
  • Opportunities to learn language and content simultaneously through deliberate scaffolding, and opportunities for reasoning using students’ home languages and English.

A rubric can guide the team through a series of prompts about the curriculum content, structure, and activities to ensure that essential components are included. Some helpful questions include the following: 

  • Are units explicitly sequenced to strategically build language proficiency alongside content knowledge? 
  • Do language goals help students to develop mathematical words and phrases and syntax and the ability to engage in mathematical practices?
  • Do materials include ample opportunities for students to use math language in different modalities (listening, speaking, reading, writing) and to refine that language over time?

A rubric may also include ways to assess the usefulness of materials in scaffolding:

  • Do the materials guide teachers on how to facilitate mathematical discussions among those with varying levels of language proficiency?
  • Do the materials provide strategies to contextualize math language, connect to students’ lives, and build on their background knowledge?
  • Do the materials draw on multiple resources and mathematical representations—such as objects, symbols, graphs, tables, anchor charts, models?
  • Do the materials encourage students to build on their existing language resources to communicate their mathematical thinking?

High-quality materials will also include formative assessment tools that capture the range of ELLs’ language and content knowledge over time, including writing, work samples, and oral language.

Implement the Changes

After using a rubric to evaluate materials, a team will be able to identify areas for refinement and redesign. For example, if the learning materials provided by the district provide few opportunities for students to use mathematics for real-world purposes, the inquiry team can work together to build those opportunities into units. 

Once changes are enacted in the lessons, team members can document new teaching practices and student learning and engagement. This feedback can be used by the group to collaboratively analyze and further refine. 

When teachers cooperate in cycles of curriculum study, refinement, and teaching, they can provide content-rich, engaging lessons with high levels of challenge and support. Like Rachel, they can watch their EL students begin to thrive academically and see themselves as mathematicians, regardless of whether they’ve fully mastered the language of instruction. 

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Filed Under

  • English-Language Learners
  • Curriculum Planning
  • Math