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Improving Classroom Discourse and Math Achievement for ELL Students

Q&A with Dr. Susie Håkansson, Immediate Past-President of TODOS: Mathematics for All

What Can We Do to Raise ELL Mathematics Achievement?

The latest National Center for Data Statistics (NAEP) that reported English Language Learners (ELL) mathematics scores lagged non-ELLS by 30 percentage points, so what can be done to raise mathematics comprehension and achievement for ELLs? I had the opportunity to ask Dr. Susie Håkansson for some ideas and answers. She is Immediate Past-President of TODOS: Mathematics for ALL. She taught high school mathematics, was a lecturer in the UCLA Department of Mathematics, and has over 30 years of experience providing professional development to mathematics teachers. She was the Executive Director of the California Mathematics Project (CMP), and is the recipient of the TODOS 2013 Iris M. Carl Leadership and Equity Award, the California Mathematics Council 2009 Walter Denham Memorial Award, and a UCLA 2009 Distinguished Teaching Award.




On the Need for Best Practices for ELLs

DreamBox: First, tell me about TODOS and your involvement.

Håkansson: In 2002, there was a session at NCTM for teachers who wanted to know more about teaching mathematics to Latina and Latino students – there was a huge turnout, and we realized that there needed to be more resources for this group of students. That was the impetus for creating the organization. (‘Todos’ means ‘everybody’ in Spanish). And while the majority of ELLs are Spanish-speaking, our resources are applicable to other student groups, like non-standard English speakers and children whose heritage is from other countries.  We’re looking at best practices, which may vary from region to region and depend on the culture capital students bring with them to school.

DreamBox: What is the focus of your own work with ELLs?

SH: I focus on the use of mathematics discourse, which is based on research around the impact on learning mathematics and English at the same time. In practice, what happens is that some people think that since ELLs don’t know English, they need to slow things down for them, which sometimes translates into less rigorous mathematics, and in many ways, barring them from equity, access, and excellence. But students can learn the English language and the content of mathematics through conversation and interaction.

Discourse Makes a Difference in the ELL Classroom

DreamBox: But how does this all work when there is a real language barrier?

SH: It can be a challenge for students and teachers. Students are asked to explain their mathematical thinking, and some teachers struggle to understand the imperfect English. It requires give and take. That is essentially my role – to look at the different ways to increase discourse in the mathematics classroom. If you look at the Common Core Standards for Mathematical Practice, it emphasizes the need to justify and make claims, determine why, and critique the arguments of others. This is how students learn mathematics, which requires students to use productive and receptive language especially to articulate what they know and understand.

DreamBox: It seems like it can be uncomfortable. How do you overcome those barriers?

SH: It is uncomfortable. And we don’t like to put students on the spot and make them seem ‘different,’ but they need to learn the content, and teachers need to know what they have learned. The idea is that if you use a lot of discourse in the classroom, you use all the language functions. For example, you can have a group of students working on a problem, have them make a poster that includes the statement of the problem, a graph or diagram, a table, a symbolic solution, and a verbal solution—multiple representations of the problem and solution. They can present the poster to peers, to the teacher, or to the whole class. As for the teacher, in an hour geometry lesson you may use the word ‘triangle’ 15-20 times. In the next lesson you use the word ‘triangle’ many times again. Fluency in mathematics language isn’t going to happen overnight. It’s can be pulling teeth at the beginning of the year! Show pictures, use the words, and, after 2-3 weeks you ask them to remember. This is a language rich approach, but again, it’s not an overnight change. You have to stick with it. In any case, English can be a challenge for anyone not born to it.

DreamBox: It can be a challenge even for those of us who are born to it!

SH: Listen, monolinguals aren’t even aware of all the challenges of English with our homophones and homonyms. “We must polish the Polish furniture.” Think about the word “even” – there are so many interpretations of “even”, and then there are different interpretations of even in mathematics. We need to be more sensitive and supportive about what we’re saying and the way we say it. The truth is, many ‘English speakers’ don’t have an extensive knowledge of English either, and in many mathematics classes, everyone is learning English together, especially the language of mathematics. The main thing is not to water down the content – rather, provide opportunities. It’s all about the opportunity gap, not the achievement gap. This links to how we provide equity and access.

Further Resources

DreamBox: Can you provide some resources on this topic?

SH: I’m conducting a webinar on this topic for edWeb on February 13. I’d also recommend Beyond Good Teaching: Advancing Mathematics Education for ELLs by Nora Ramirez and Sylvia Celedon-Pattchis published by NCTM; Katherine Chval and her research into facilitating the participation of Latino ELLS in the mathematics classroom, and Judit Moskovitch. Also check out the proficiency development framework (ELPD), outlined after the Common Core came out. 


Susie W. Håkansson, Ph.D


Pathways to True Equity and Social Justice

DreamBox:  How does TODOS/do you work with educators to design better math programs for English Language Learners?

SH: We speak at conferences. TODOS has resources at its site, and a forum for teachers. We’re creating a 2-day PD program for schools and districts that will address social justice in the mathematics classroom. We have a conference every other year – the next one will be in 2018. To me, the main focus in this work is on equity and excellence–in other words we need to look at both. Unfortunately, people focus on equity but not how you support excellence or they support excellence without addressing equity. They are not separate things: they go together.

DreamBox: Do you have any other ELL best practices thoughts to share?

SH: We must eliminate deficit discourse – to learn more about the joint position of NCSM and TODOS on this you can look at the web page on social justice in mathematics education. You need to know how to work with students who haven’t been provided with the skills. For students who have never been exposed to real discourse, they are just saying simple words the first week. But by the end of the school year they will use complete sentences. You have to stick with it. You also need PD and the ability to see things as they are. Where are you as a teacher? Where are your students? And then you build on strengths.


Want to learn more? Join Dr. Håkansson and us on February 13 for the Use Discourse to Access Language and Mathematics for English Learners webinar. Participants will increase their understanding of the rationale for using discourse in the classroom, the role of productive and receptive language functions in the learning of mathematics, and examples of how to increase discourse in the classroom and receive a Certificate of Completion. Additionally read more about how DreamBox supports ELL learners with strategies to close gaps fast.







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