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Math Meets English: The Unexpected Ways Language Impacts ELL Success

When I was in college, I volunteered at the local high school tutoring Kudjo from Togo and Israa from Sudan. On Sunday afternoons, when the hotel we worked at was slow, I helped Vinesh, a thirty-something from India practice reading English. In my early teaching career, I hosted two exchange students, Walaa an Arabic speaker from Israel and Kitti from Slovakia. As a teacher, I have had students native to Nigeria, Sudan, and Brazil in my classroom.  My neighbor, and good friend, is from Colombia and last fall I had the honor of helping her study for her American citizenship test.

I’m certainly not an expert in English language learners (ELLs), but I have learned much over the years about the struggles of non-native English speakers trying to navigate the English language and I am familiar with strategies in ELL pedagogy.

But, the presentation from Kim Hunt of Lyman C. Hunt Middle School in Burlington, at this year’s Middle Grades Collaborative Conference in Vermont, might be the most significant lesson I have ever had on how the conflicting rules of English can keep ELL students from succeeding not in speaking, reading or hearing English, but in math class.

Kim started by showing us a word problem about babysitting. It went something like this:   

Bea was hired by her neighbor to babysit for $9 an hour.  How much money did Bea earn for babysitting for 8 hours? 

We were asked to think about the problems a student who was learning English or had a language disability might face when attacking this problem.  My mind immediately went to the word babysitting. Its literal interpretation, sitting on a baby, is a little disturbing and is a term that is specific to the American lexicon.  But, others quickly in the room pointed out the implications of the word an.  “An” is an article pointing out ONE object, but it can also mean “per” or “for each.” Students have to decode this as they solve the problem.­ For example; Sally runs a marathon a year. In this sentence, the “a” has two differing meanings, only one (the first “a”) indicates a number. The other is an article indicating “per.” 

We looked at the ways some students went about solving the problem of Bea the babysitter. Students’ math skills were spot on, but they chose the wrong processes for solving the problem based on a misunderstanding of the words. For example, a student read “an hour” as “one hour,” choosing to add $9 + 1=$10. Then $10 x 8 would equal $80.         

Hunt then facilitated a discussion around some other problematic sentences commonly found in math curriculum.  Check out the highlighted words and think about how ambiguous they could be to non-native speakers.

We also discussed some other problematic words often found in math problems. Of, which typically signifies multiply and homophones like sum in a math context, adds an extra layer of problem solving for ELL students and those with language disabilities. We also talked about instructional strategies including teaching students explicitly about the role of these words and developing a process by which to sort and think about words in word problems. It seems like a relatively simple concept, and it surprised me that I never thought of these words like this before. 

The lesson I learned from this presentation was powerful, but the lesson goes far beyond solving math problems. It touches on personalizing assessment: is it appropriate to just copy ancillary materials from a school’s adopted math program for all students to complete?  It touches on proficiency based education: how do we separate the skills of solving the math process and decoding the words in the problems? And, it touches on seat time and pacing: how do we account for the extra time and mental resilience that ELL students and students with language disabilities need in order to be successful?  It's funny how two little letters, “(a)n,” can illicit such dynamic discussion.   

To check out other presentation topics and access further resources, visit The Middle Grades Collaborative website.

Read Part 1 in this series:
Lessons in Personalized Learning from Vermont’s Middle Grades Collaborative Conference

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