Math Strategies for English Language Learners

In Massachusetts, all core subject area teachers and administrators of English Language Learners, must receive a Sheltered English Immersion (SEI) Endorsement from the state. One way for educators to receive this endorsement is by taking a RETELL (Rethinking Equity and Teaching for English Language Learners) course. One of the main goals of the course is to provide teachers with a repertoire of methods and strategies they can use to help students practice the four domains for learning language: reading, writing, listening, and speaking.

These are a few of my favorite strategies I learned from the course:

Reading Strategy: Partner Reading for Comprehension
Partner Reading

This strategy made the problems more manageable because students were able to have valuable discussions regarding the content before actually solving the problem. Since Partner #2 had to comment and respond to Partner #1’s questions, they had to pay close attention to what was being read. Most of the partners were able to choose the most important pieces from each word problem based on what Partner #1 had commented on during part two of the reading strategy. Giving my ELLs the opportunity to read aloud with a mainstream student allowed them to practice their expressions and ask for explanations. The strategy helps support both partners as they learn from each other’s observations and questions regarding the text. The students were able to determine what phrases were necessary for successful completion of the problem, and those that were not needed.

Writing Strategy #1: Cut and Grow
The Cut-n-Grow strategy provided students with an opportunity to see exemplar/non-exemplar student work samples and focus on improving their own open response questions. First, students looked at a student work sample that received a score of 2 on a standardized open response question. They cut the question apart and wrote additional explanations to turn the score into a 4. Then, students repeated the process for an open response question they had previously solved, to improve upon their own writing.

Cut and Grow

Many of my ELLs tend to leave open response questions blank on exams, so it’s important that we explicitly practice answering these questions. The strategy gave students a second chance at improving their work, and they responded very well to this strategy. The physical act of cutting and pasting pieces of the response, and then adding their revised sentences, really helped show students how to edit and model good writing.

This strategy can work with any writing sample the students produce in class, such as journal entries, AP open response answers, exit tickets, etc.

Writing Strategy #2: Write Around
Students should be divided into groups of 3 or 4. Each student starts with a blank sheet of paper and writes one sentence of a word problem. Then, the student passes the paper to the right. After reading what is written, students continue to add sentences until a word problem is created (approx 4 sentences). Each team will choose one problem to write on a large whiteboard or paper to show the rest of the class during a gallery walk. The gallery walk gives students the chance to make observations regarding other students’ work. Students can then choose one or more of the problems to solve. Teachers can scaffold this activity by providing students a list of must-haves for each word problem. For example, students might have to include the following in a quadratics word problem: a setting, the type of object being thrown/launched/dropped, height at which object starts, and the speed or distance the object travels. Each student would take turns providing one of these details.

My biggest takeaway from this course is that we all need to explicitly teach strategies for reading, writing, speaking, and listening in our disciplines. We cannot sit back and “let the English teacher handle it.” English Language Learners are trying to learn a new language at the same time we are expecting them to learn our content. It’s our responsibility to provide opportunities in our lessons to support both goals.


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