Monday, October 19, 2015

Teaching Math as a Second Language

I've had a dry spell here on the blog, so I want to start with, "Hey! How ya doin'? It's been a while!"

Today was a great day, I had 0 regularly scheduled students, and 3 reschedules. These days are great because there's really no rhyme or reason, and I get to learn a lot about myself. I started with an Algebra student, then went to work with 2 second graders (1 math and reading and the other just math).

I was reminded today about an old project that has been sitting in the dusty back edges of my "some day I will get to this" files. Ages ago, when I was in my 3rd year of college, I took a Teaching English Language Learners course. It was really a "for fun" course for me. There isn't a real need in my area, and I'm not fluent in any other language. I was just curious. I LOVED the course. There were so many valuable tidbits that I could see myself applying to so many areas of teaching English speaking students.

Of course, you well know that math is my thing. And I've heard time and time again, people crying, "I just don't understand!" It was the same cry I was hearing ELLs bemoaning! It hit me that Math is truly a completely unique language. Sure there are words that sound like everyday language, but they usually have a different meaning or application. I found, through some blind studies with my children, that understanding the vocabulary was a determining factor to understanding content.

Ok, now I have to shamelessly admit something here. I thought that this was a brilliant construct of my own, that no one else on Earth had thought of this, made this connection. Unfortunately, I cannot take the credit. While, yes, in my mind, it's all mine. I did some research that landed me on the page of a teacher, Herb Gross. I haven't done a ton of research into his philosophy and methods, but from what I've read, we'd have a lot of fun teaching math together. Herb, if you are out there reading this and ever find yourself in Michigan, look me up!

The basic idea is that as teachers we take a step back from the math curriculum, whether it's 9th grade Algebra or 2nd grade skip counting, and we look at it through the eyes of someone who doesn't speak the language. Rather than teach them "how" to solve a problem, we help our students understand "why" the solution works. Instead of using algorithms and formulas as our backbone of instruction, we use vocabulary and language development.

How does this look? 

The first rule is to front load vocabulary and key terms. I'll use the Algebra student I was working with today as an example. We've been working together for a few months, and I noticed right away that he didn't speak Mathenese ( I promise I didn't make that word up! See this search for proof:). I started each lesson with a moment to collect our thoughts and think about what we already knew about the key words. Sometimes it was nothing, sometimes it was a related word in science. For example, when we discussed dependent and independent variables he quickly remembered that a dependent variable was something that would be caused by something else, and that something else was an independent. Activating this prior knowledge, and connecting his science notes with his math lesson helped him to make sense of the entire lesson. 

The second rule is to infuse your lessons with visual aids.
A strategy borrowed from Teaching English Language Learners, providing visual aids helps our students process the information in a spatial way. They can connect colors and shapes to verbal cues. These visual aids can be 3-dimensional manipulatives, anchor charts, posters, charts, diagrams, or simple little drawings. I find that it is most beneficial to get  the students involved in creating these visual aids. After I've provided a cue I give them an opportunity to develop their own, and then we analyze their developments. This entire process not only helps each student develop understanding of the concepts, but also cements a learning strategy they can take with them on their life long learning journey!

The third rule is to use your student's native language as often as possible. I know this sounds a little strange when we are talking about teaching math to a student who speaks the same language as us. However, if my student is particularly interested in science, or quickly refers to science terms, I use that, and try to make those connections as soon as possible and as often as possible. A few years ago I was working with a 10th grade Geometry student who saw absolutely no need for math. This particular student had plans to be an artist, and was convinced math couldn't help her. When we started discussing perspectives in drawings and angles of lighting, I was able to see a light bulb glow for her. Immediately, everything we had discussed about adjacent angles of a triangle, and angles of elevation became crystal clear to her. Learners will naturally make connections to contexts they have a high interest in, so use it!

Ok, I think I've kept you long enough. I'll save some more of this for another post later. Here's to helping our students develop their Mathenese!

By the way, I'm developing an interactive notebook type of vocabulary journal for my 9th grade Algebra students, If that's something you'd be interested in, head over to my store and pre-order your copy. I promise to have at least a unit complete by the end of the month, and I'll keep adding to it throughout the year. As with all of my growing units, the sooner you you grab it the less it will cost ;) Here's just a little snippet of the first few pages.


  1. Hi Stephanie.
    I think you give me too much credit; at least is the sense that my idea of math as a second language is built around the single (and simple) premise that while we talk about numbers, what students think in terms of are quantities. That is, they see numbers (actually numerals) as adjective that modify nouns. This is exactly what we do in science and in engineering. More specifically we never talk about 3 but rather about 3 feet, 3 kilometers, 3 apples 3 people etc.
    In no more than a few more months I will be posting a new website that will replace my current websites (which are and The website will be built around a series of 40 arithmetic video lectures that, under the aegis of Corning Inc., I produced to help elementary school teachers help their students. The videos will be supplemented by the power point slide shows and other written materials that are now located in the website; and it will then (hopefully) become a virtual professional development workshop for elementary school teachers that any viewer ( especially teacher, parent and/or school districts) can use free of charge.
    In any event, I send you my best wishes and warmest regards and I will look forward to hearing from you if any of my words happened to strike a responsive chord.
    Most cordially,
    In November of 2014, at age 85, I gave the keynote address at the 40th anniversary celebration of the American mathematical Association of Two Year Colleges (AMATYC). It might contain a few thoughts that could be of interest to you. The link below Will take you to a video that contains my talk. The talk begins at the 29th minute of the video and lasts for about an hour.

    1. Thanks for stopping by Herb, I'm so thrilled you took the time to say hi! I will definitely be watching for that new website, it sounds like a gem :)


Most Popular Posts Lately