Increasing Math Proficiency for English Language Learners

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Webinar Date: 2012

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Hello, I’m Lise Ragan, CEO and founder of Course Crafters, a company that’s been devoted to English language learners, the growing population of students in the schools ever since 1993. Today we’re going to talk about increasing elementary math proficiency for English language learners. Let’s talk about ELL best practices in math instruction that help to close the achievement gap. The first and most important best process is to teach and test math in a manner that’s not highly language dependent using visuals, Manipulatives, and hands-on activities. The second best process is to assess student comprehension by allowing ELLs to ‘show their work’ using task-based, hands-on activities. The third best process: To differentiate instruction to support ELLs at varying levels of English and math proficiency. The fourth is to provide comprehensive, ongoing progress monitoring and reporting, so ELLs don’t fall through the academic “cracks.” And last, but certainly not least, to make math lessons highly engaging, supportive, and rewarding so ELLs will feel confident in their abilities, and so that they will practice and persist.

So, let’s look at the best practices one by one. ELL best practice one, you know, when I first taught about math for English language learners several years ago, I thought what could be so hard about numbers, but math actually involves a great deal of language. Traditional math textbooks and math tests need lots of math language that ELLs don’t understand. It’s crucial for ELLs to be able to explore, learn, and be evaluated in math in a manner that is less language dependent than most methods and materials in teaching math concepts are. Math concepts can be made more comprehensible or understandable and clear for ELLs through the use visuals and real objects. And Manipulatives also help English language learners gain deep understanding of math without a whole lot of language. So, let’s look at some examples of that and the DreamBox Learning materials. As I mentioned, math concepts can be made more comprehensible for ELLs through the use of visuals and real objects, and Manipulatives. There are a lot of Manipulatives in the DreamBox Learning materials which is can be so effective for teaching English language learners. Using interactive games and activities that are interactive and highly visual promotes ready learning of math concepts in language. Through this visually rich interactive learning environment, DreamBox Learning’s math materials provided what ELLs educators call comprehensible input on which students can build their basic learning and share what they know. For example, the Manipulatives that you see in these examples here presents math concepts using strong visual support and clear directions. And the DreamBox Learning materials incorporate visual examples of how to solve a problem when students answer incorrectly. This is a very effective technique. And also within DreamBox Learning, what students need to do the directions free-tech activity is always supported by audio, and tutorials, and step by step directions these peripherals are using. I’m really impressed with that. The richness of visuals and hands-on learning supports the development of math concepts, and also by the way, the development of math language along the way.

ELL best practice two: To assess ELLs’ comprehension of math by allowing students to show what they know, using task-based, hands-on activities. You know what the exciting is? The exciting thing is that many ELLs may actually be math wizards, but they could never show what they know but with the tasks these activities and a hands-on program they really can’t and that’s the case with DreamBox Learning. DreamBox Learning evaluates students’ math knowledge and learning using Manipulatives, and task-based activities, and games. The program helps teachers evaluate and track each student’s progress to ensure that students are working at the right level which I’m going to talk about later, but that’s a very, very important factor to make sure kids are working at the appropriate level. And the program is able to assess student comprehension at very “fine grain” level based on student responses and errors. So, bottom-line? It’s really evaluating what the students know based on what they can do with math. Not based on how much math language they know which is really critical. Adaptive technology programs like the DreamBox Learning program evaluate each and every student’s math knowledge and learning using as I’ve said Manipulatives, these task-based activities, and games. And they don’t require a lot of complex directions or explanations. This is going to be an incredible benefit for district schools and classrooms known anywhere else. Also, this can individualize instruction based on correct or incorrect responses and adapt to the student and their level based on all kinds of things like response time, and types of mistakes they make, and the kind of scaffolding that’s needed to help them to achieve, and the kind of strategy they use to solve the problem. And this information that is clinging from this will be critical to ensuring that ELLs are working at the right level, and help inform ELLs teachers in terms of their math instructional plans.

ELL best practice number three is related to what we just talked about. ELLs in the mainstream classrooms need extra opportunities and support to learn and practice math concepts and achieve math proficiency – on their own, and at their own pace and level. We’ve learned that the ELLs come to class with a range of educational background and varying levels of math proficiency, students who are not often working at appropriate levels and they get frustrated and discouraged. We also know based on this that many ELLs in the mainstream classroom need lots of extra opportunities and support to get academically up-speed. They need to learn math concepts on their own, at their own level, and at their own pace. The best adaptive programs differentiate instruction to support ELLs at all levels. And when we look at technology-based programs for ELLs, we look to programs that first of all assess student understanding on an ongoing basis to ensure that the ELLs are working at an appropriate level of difficulty. The DreamBox Learning program in fact does that. We also look to programs that adjust levels of scaffolding, hints, pacing, and tools based on the student’s demonstrated understanding. I talked about that and the kind of flexibility the DreamBox Learning has in that restart. It’s a very powerful tool for not only adjusting these to the appropriate levels of the students, but also of giving the teacher of that information. And of course we look for a program that provides individualized instruction based on student comprehension and needs. Much to my pleasure, all these things are exactly what DreamBox Learning does. The adaptive curriculum differentiates the amount of scaffolding students in every activity and students who need extra help can get it. And those ELLs who understand math concepts, they can finally demonstrate what they can do and move in a faster pace.

ELL best practice number four, to provide teachers with comprehensive ongoing progress monitoring and reporting, so ELLs don’t fall between the “academic cracks.” We know that many E teachers are working with ELLs in large and diverse main classrooms, but those kids often fall between the cracks because they don’t often ask for help when they don’t understand something. So, ongoing progress monitoring and reporting of student comprehension of and proficiency on specific math concepts can help teachers tailor instructional plans to meet the needs of each and every student. And an effective program should track individual student progress, provide reports detailing how well students are learning the essential math concepts and skills. I was very impressed with the comprehensive and ongoing progress reporting in the DreamBox Learning program. This kind of reporting will allow small issues and student misunderstandings to be cleared off before they cause real problems to English learners and I think that is a very powerful tool.

And finally, best practice number five: To make math lessons highly engaging, supportive, and rewarding so ELLs will feel confident in their abilities, practice, and persist. You know, motivation and confidence which is so critical to all students is often lacking especially in at-risk students and we know that many ELLs are at risk. We know ELLs can come to school in all grade levels and some may not have mastered grade level math concepts. We know a number of ELLs who may know math concepts but haven’t been able to demonstrate that knowledge because of the language barrier. Students who are not working at appropriate levels get frustrated and they get discouraged. We also know that ELLs often fall between the cracks because they can’t get help or they don’t speak up when they don’t understand something. So, you can imagine this lack of comprehension often negatively affects students ELLs’ intrinsic motivation. And overall, lack of achievement and ability to grow and show what you know, attracts student’s ability and their desire to be worthy. So, programs that are really engaging and exciting and that integrate gaming and rewards to motivate ELLs to persist and to continue learning and practicing are really powerful for ELL’s who are struggling with motivation and confidence. We’ve learned that ELLs are afraid to speak up in class. They’re reluctant to raise their hands. They may not, you know, know the math or they may know it, but being engaged in a fun, motivating, and adaptive learning environment will lower what linguists call the Affective Filter. That’s the wall that comes up when we’re nervous. And when the affective filter comes down as it can when the student is engaged in a motivating game-like environment like DreamBox Learning provides. And also when they are working at their appropriate level, that affective learning filter can come down and more learning will take place.

And understanding the meaning of math language and math concepts is made easier for ELLs in DreamBox Learning through active engagement and interaction. It’s about making the math meaningful and comprehensive and the engaging games and puzzles, and hands-on activities are really fun. And when students are engaged, they have less anxiety and, you know what, they’re more often to relearn. The materials also provide encouragement, and support, and rewards for time, effort, and correct answers. As I mentioned earlier, at-risk ELLs experience few successes and get little acknowledgement for their good work. In DreamBox Learning, they are constantly providing incentives and rewards to both achievement and time spent that are essential for students’ persistence and activity. This kind of feedback and these rewards are especially important for ELLs who as you know often are way behind in their English speaking peers and they need additional time to catch up. Based on what I saw when I reviewed DreamBox Learning, with these materials ELLs can demonstrate their math knowledge about various language. And they get rewarded when they demonstrate, are they understanding that concept? And let’s say persistence if they spend time on it ELLs can experience academic success and sometimes for the first time. So, as I’ve mentioned, highly engaged ELLs will develop confidence and competence in mathematics. ELLs who are hesitant to explore math concepts in a mainstream classroom will be more comfortable using the engaging activities than these virtual Manipulatives so that they can move around. I mean this is really exciting learning because it’s really hands-on which is so appropriate for ELLs. And this is going to help kids develop their confidence and competence in Mathematics.

So, to summarize today, adaptive learning technology that incorporates ELL best practices and math instruction can help elementary ELLs achieve math proficiency and close the achievement gap to re-individualize, support, to supplement traditional classroom direction. What I learned at DreamBox Learning when I reviewed it was that math concepts in this program are presented in a clear and comprehensible way, and students can readily demonstrate their knowledge in math with the support of lots of visuals, these hands-on activities, and Manipulatives. English learners who work on their own with the computer at their own pace and at the right level have no embarrassment. They have low anxiety. This is ideal and using the DreamBox material which I really found engaging, I think ELLs will really have fun while they learn, and they’ll be acknowledged, and appropriately rewarded for their work, a great proof to the confidence and motivation levels of these average students. I cannot emphasize enough how important this is. And last but certainly not least, teachers of ELLs who are often not trained in how to effectively support English language learners in the mainstream classroom can get ongoing details or report student progress through this program. If they know how their ELLs are doing, they can see where their students need extra support, and they can reward the progress of these kids. Thank you very much and I appreciate the opportunity to talk to you today.

Lise B. Ragan
Chief Executive Officer
Course Crafters

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