Increasing Elementary Math Proficiency for English Language Learners

Math Learning Strategies for ELL Students

When compared to overall student enrollment, English language learners (ELLs) are the fastest-growing K-12 segment in the United States today and this trend shows no signs of slowing down. The exponential growth in ELL enrollment is changing the dynamics of today’s elementary school classrooms even in states that had not seen large numbers of ELLs in the past. A growing number of ELLs are being educated in mainstream classrooms by teachers without the training or resources needed to effectively instruct them. Against this backdrop, most ELLs are not meeting academic proficiency standards; especially alarming is their growing achievement gap in mathematics.

  • The growing English language learner student population
  • Challenges in ELL instruction
  • The achievement gap in math
  • Why is mathematics difficult for ELLs?
    • Undeveloped second language reading comprehension skills
    • Limited mathematics vocabulary
    • Difficulty in understanding the complex syntax of mathematics
    • Prevalence of word problems
    • Background knowledge
    • Cultural differences
  • Addressing the challenge: Ensuring ELLs achieve math proficiency
    • Placement in mainstream classrooms
    • Exponential growth
    • Doing more with less
    • Federal legislation
    • Disparate circumstances
  • Best practices in ELL elementary math instruction
    • Highly visual, hands-on activities and use of visual math manipulatives
    • Continuous and dynamic performance assessment
    • Adaptive, individualized instruction based on student response, level of comprehension, strategies and right and wrong answers
    • Comprehensive progress monitoring and reporting
    • Engaging activities, lessons and rewards for time, effort and academic achievement
Helping English Language Learners with Math

About the Authors

Lise Ragan is the founder and CEO of Course Crafters, Inc. the preeminent developer of curriculum and instructional materials for English language Learners (ELLs) and resources and professional development for their teachers since 1993. Lise is a former teacher of ELLs. She does consulting, training, and professional development in the ELL field with both school districts publishers.

Dr. Suzanne Irujo has been a teacher and teacher educator in the fields of English as a second language, bilingual education, and foreign language education for over 30 years. Her public school experience includes elementary bilingual education and English as a second language (ESL), and high school ESL and Spanish. Suzanne is Professor Emerita at Boston University, where she taught and trained teachers in their graduate ESL/bilingual program. She is the author of numerous scholarly articles and educational materials, including several articles on ELLs and mathematics.

Alex Ragan founded and was editor-in-chief of The ELL Outlook, an e-newsletter resource for ELL educators, from 2001 to 2008. From 2005 to 2009, Alex was editorial director at Course Crafters, where he directed instructional design and content development of all materials, including The Academic Language Notebooks: The Language of Math (Course Crafters/Perfection Learning), on which he and Suzanne Irujo are authors. He holds a Master of Education degree, Specialized (Ed.M.) from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

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