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Math strategies for ELL students

Whether or not budgets are shrinking, schools still need to support the increasing number of English Language Learners (ELLs) in the skills acquisition they need to succeed in math. ELLs are the fastest-growing kindergarten through Grade 12 segment when compared to overall student enrollment. The latest ELL statistics from the National Center for Education Statistics released in 2013 says that the percentage of public school students in the United States who were English language learners was higher in 2010-11 (10 percent, or an estimated 4.7 million students) than in 2002-03 (9 percent, or an estimated 4.1 million students). In California, Spring 2013 data reports that ELLs constitute 21.6 percent of the total enrollment.

Fastest growing segment

Percentage of public school students who are English language learners (ELL), by state: School year 2010-11


Case study: ELL math success in South Los Angeles, CA

A case in point is The Inner City Education Foundation (ICEF) Vista Elementary Academy in South Los Angeles. The school serves low income students, nearly 80 percent of whom are ELLs. Facing a 20 percent budget cut in the fall of 2010 as part of significant state cuts to educational funding, and the loss of three teachers and two instructional assistants, Principal Ryan Gomez and his team decided that they needed to adopt new strategies to overcome reduced credentialed teaching positions and keep closing gaps. “We had to quickly adjust our classrooms and teaching models,” stresses Principal Gomez “to serve four classrooms at each grade level with just three teachers.” The decision was made to move away from the one-teacher, one-classroom model to online instruction —blended learning—that could provide strategic support in a bilingual setting and boost achievement.

What math strategies can work for ELL students?

Learning the language of math while learning English can be challenging for ELLs. Educators need to help students build on their students’ competencies as they build vocabulary in English and mathematics. There are several ways to support ELL math learning and learners:

  • Visual context– Visual support makes language more comprehensible. For example, a lesson about fractions using manipulatives is more understandable than an explanation of the concept.  The Journal of Instructional Pedagogies’, Using manipulatives to teach elementary mathematics, covers the most effective, researched-based best practices. Manipulatives can be used to teach a wide variety of math topics, including the objectives from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) standards of problem solving, communicating, reasoning, connections, and estimation.
  • Balanced assessment – NCTM describes a Best practices for ELL math learners is to assess students in ways that permit them to show what they know and are able to do. This requires providing test accommodations that lessen the language complexity without reducing the rigor of the mathematics under investigation. Ongoing formative assessment for ELLs provides the feedback students and teachers need to improve students’ achievement and for teachers to help adjust learning, not just assign a grade.
  • Active participation and engagement – Lessons that encourage active involvement motivate ELL students, engage them in the learning process, and help them remember content more easily. A game-like environment helps develop problem solving skills and persistence.

How adding adaptive instructional technology made a difference at ICEF Vista

Adaptive learning programs can help engage ELL students. Using DreamBox, powered by Intelligent Adaptive Learning™ technology, ICEF Visa elementary moved to daily individualized online instruction in a learning lab.

The DreamBox interface, with its graphics, virtual manipulatives, and large print, helps establish context. The game-like environment helps students acquire tools and skills they need to succeed in math. As for ongoing assessment and differentiation, Principal Gomez explains: “DreamBox helps us pinpoint where students are struggling and where teachers can reinforce instruction. Our intervention specialist gets more impactful face-to-face time as a result of her use of DreamBox.”

It also shows where students are proficiency. Now, the majority of fourth and fifth graders are either proficient or advanced, despite budget and staff cuts, since DreamBox has been implemented.

Read more about how ICEF Vista Elementary in the DreamBox case study  Helping ELL Students Succeed in Math,  and learn more about Ell instructional best practices in the white paper Increasing Proficiency for English Language Learners.