The title of this blog is written as a tongue in cheek “equation.” The purpose was to show the four parts of language development critical for mathematical learning: to speak, to listen, to write, and to read. Being able to understand (listen and read) and express (speak and write) math language can be a challenge for many students for several reasons. To name a few, students have to learn new words associated with symbols; some words are used in both everyday English and also have precise mathematical meanings (e.g., square, similar, range); and some terms are confusing because they are similar in spelling and pronunciation (e.g., hundreds and hundredths, intersect and intercept)
The article English Language Development Strategies in Math (www.azed.gov) provides 10 excellent strategies for math teachers. Below are just a four of the suggested strategies you might find helpful, with added ideas for using technology tools to support students.
- Writing Word Problems. Give students opportunities to write their own word problems. Writing problems demands clear, concise, and complete ideas. It helps students understand mathematical terms at the same time that they practice sentence structure, use of precise vocabulary, grammar, and punctuation. If they write their problems online, then students can share their work via email, in blogs, or on a class website.
- Learning Journals. Have students keep a journal to document their learning and thinking. Writing at frequent intervals allows students to practice using new mathematical vocabulary and demonstrate their learning. The journals, especially if they are e-journals, can be regularly shared, commented on, and discussed with the teacher or peers (Check out our blog post on adding voice feedback to Google Docs for ideas).
- Directed Reading-Thinking. This is a good activity to help students read and understand their mathematics textbooks. Students quickly skim the titles, captions, charts, images, and graphics included in a chapter. They predict what they think the main ideas of the lesson will be. This creates an anticipatory mode. Then students read the text to determine how accurate their predictions were. This activity fosters active reading and thinking. Digital textbooks, with embedded supports (e.g., access to vocabulary definitions and explanations, notecards) are particularly helpful to students for immediate access to information.
- Multiple Representations. There are many ways students with different abilities and needs can express the meaning of mathematical ideas and language. Students can use visuals, semantic organizers, gestures, demonstrations, and hand-on activities that involve the use of academic or technical language. Regardless of how information is represented, the goal is always the same—to encourage, with as many supports as possible, “math talk.” Taking advantage of technology tools, students can create videos, podcasts, design graphics, and make charts.
PowerUp What Works has devoted one of the Math Instructional Strategy Guides to Math Language. There you will find a slide show, teaching strategies, suggested technology tools, a classroom example, short videos, resources, and supporting research. Many of these materials can be easily integrated into professional development activities.