All too often, ELLs struggle with math content language. They may get the concept, but they have a difficult time navigating the language of the problem. Imagine a very simple addition problem for elementary school such as the following:
14 boys and 13 girls went on a fieldtrip to a museum. How many children went on the trip altogether?
Problems here for the ELLs are several. First, the problem talks about boys and girls. Adding -s to a noun often times makes it plural. However, the problem now puts in the word CHILDREN. If the student is an ELL, s/he might be confused on where the word CHILDREN came from. Then, the ELL sees the word FIELDTRIP. S/he knows what the words FIELD (open area where games are played) and TRIP (going somewhere to visit someone or a special place) mean individually, but together presents a meaning that may be totally new for her/him. Last, the word ALTOGETHER is another way of telling the reader to add, but it might not be a vocabulary word the student is familiar with. So, the bottom line is that teachers may wish to rewrite problems or explain with visuals, cognate dictionaries, etc. words that may be new for ELLs. How can a teacher know what is new for the student? Have him/her try to explain what is expected of him/her to do in the problem. It is at that moment the student will either stumble through it due to language issues or arrive at the correct interpretation on his/her own.
How does a teacher build math (algebra, geometry, trigonometry) vocabulary for ELLs? Graphic organizers can be quite productive here: Venn-diagrams to show similarities and differences, charts where terms with like meanings are grouped together (see example on site where under ADDITION, four different terms for the action are listed), concept maps, word walls, math journals where students can keep running records of what they learned in class on any given day, etc. For ELLs to make connections to math terminology, they need to be surrounded by it in meaningful formats.
CONNECTED MATHEMATICS PROJECT offers some very effective, practical, and easy to implement approaches to demystify math language for ELLs. It is a good starting point:)
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