As teachers, we know how essential it is to ensure that each student in our classroom community is supported and included. But friends, this is HARD work. In my early days of teaching, there were so many nights where I would fall asleep making mental lists of accommodations, only to startle awake in the early morning hours with new worries and new concerns. Have you been there, too? To help you avoid some of those sleepless nights (because we all need every moment we can get!), I’m sharing seven of my tried and true strategies to support emerging bilingual students in math.
It is up to us as educators to find meaningful ways to figure out where our students are with particular standards and skills. We need meaningful ways for ALL of our students to demonstrate their understanding of concepts. In practice, WHAT students are working on and HOW students are working will look different from student to student.
Just like with Literacy Centers, my aim with Math Centers is to make sure that my students feel empowered in the classroom, rather than singled out. We cannot assume that because a student is early in their English language acquisition that they are also in an early stage of their math understanding. My hope is that these strategies help you to feel confident supporting the broad range of students in your class.
Emerging Bilingual students join our classroom with such a range of English acquisition. Language acquisition takes time and, often, is not linear. Over the years, I have sought to be more purposeful with the visuals that I use throughout the classroom, and with my literacy and math centers. By including clear, distraction-free visuals and text whenever possible, I can provide my students the best chance of accessing the information that they need to feel prepared, comfortable, and independent in my classroom.
Math Work Board
Transition times during math centers can be a busy, confusing, or overwhelming time for students, especially emerging bilingual students. “Where are my friends going? Should I be cleaning up right now? Where do I go next? Which materials do I need?”…. are just a few of the questions I often hear as we transition between centers. Setting up a Center Rotation Board has been a game-changing math strategy for emerging bilinguals. By including colors for groups and clear visuals, students can see which center they’re heading to next.
When the workboard is up, students know to go up to it at the beginning of math and when we switch centers. Finding their name and following the color across the row gives students the information they need to gather their materials and move to the next workspace. An added bonus: the visual symbols on the work board match the visual symbols on the center materials so students can find the necessary materials.
Of course, this takes strong routines, and lots of modeling and practice to get to this point. The workboard remains relatively the same throughout the whole year. Groups shift and activities shuffle from day to day, but once students have learned the structures and routines for each center, they don’t need to worry about learning a new activity or remembering new directions. Instead, they can focus on learning or reinforcing new content and skills.
Classroom Supply and Manipulative Labels
Now that my students know WHERE they are going next, how can I support them with gathering their materials? With labels, of course! Labeling ALL OF THE THINGS is a math strategy for emerging bilinguals where everyone wins. Playing a game with dice? There’s a label for that! Need Uinfix cubes to solve a problem in your Math Journal? There’s a label for that! My pencil point broke and I need a new one? There’s a label for that, too.
When kids know how to find the materials they are looking for, a few magical things happen:
- I can continue focusing on my small groups. Those kiddos get my full, undivided attention instead of a stream of kids coming up to the teacher table to ask about where to get a the spinner for the game or the glue stick for the math journals.
- Kids can independently get what they need and put it away without needing to check-in with an adult. This is a huge life skill and carries over into so many other areas, both in and beyond the classroom.
- Kids are more likely to grab a manipulative or tool to support their thinking (More about why manipulatives are SO important for supporting thinking in a minute). Kids know that they can grab those manipulatives any time they need them AND they are seeing peers gathering different manipulatives to solve a problem. This makes it more likely that they’ll feel comfortable and encouraged to go and grab that manipulative or give a new manipulative a try!
Once my students know which center they’re headed to and they’ve got their necessary manipulatives, I want them to feel confident to get started on that activity. Cue: Visual Directions. Since these have been such a game-changer with literacy, I wanted to carry this concept over to Math Centers. When I include visuals on the math journal prompts and with the games students are playing, ALL students are able to have a reminder of the steps involved in the task at hand.
A frequent concern with our emerging bilingual students (along with younger students and emergent readers) is that it’s hard for them to get started on independent work if they can’t yet read the directions. Students can access the math part of the work. But they struggle to get started when they need a teacher to read them the directions.
I’ve done a few different things to support students with recording pages. Sometimes it might be highlighting color words in the correct color so students know which color to use. Other times it might be drawing scissors or glue under the words “cut” and “glue.” While other times, I might write some visual directions on a sticky note and attach it to the page. Little steps like these make a BIG difference for our emerging bilinguals, as well as emergent readers.
One of my FAVORITE math strategies for emerging bilinguals is word walls! If you’ve been following me for a while, you know that I love using Math and ELA word walls for so many reasons and to support so many students!
Math word walls are a staple in my classroom every year, no matter what grade level I am teaching. We set up our word walls together as a class. This way students understand that these word walls are interactive, relevant, and for them! This math strategy for emerging bilinguals comes to life when students see other peers utilizing the word walls and know that they, too, can walk up to the word wall at any time to practice or remember a new term or concept. I add words one or two at a time, ONLY AFTER we have discussed, modeled, or practiced the concept in math. I do this to keep the board simple, uncluttered, and helpful.
Some years, the word wall is on a magnetic whiteboard with magnet stickers on the back of the cards. Not only could students come up to the board for a closer look, but they could also grab a word off of the board and take it back to their workspace to support their math journal writing or math activity.
Bonus tip: You can take this math strategy a step further for emerging bilingual students by making individual word wall rings or folders. Knowing that these students may need more frequent reference of these terms, it can be so helpful for them to have a personal set that’s always close by.
Math Word Wall (Grade 2)
Not only are math manipulatives a huge passion of mine, but having manipulatives available consistently is a super helpful math strategy for emerging bilinguals.
What’s so great about manipulatives? So glad you asked!
- Manipulatives provide significant visual and tactile representations, which our students benefit from.
- Manipulatives are a great starting point and help students go from concrete, physical understanding of a math concept to thinking more abstractly about numbers.
- For our emerging bilinguals, manipulatives can help us demonstrate a scenario or action when our students do not yet have the vocabulary.
- We can illustrate word problems with manipulatives so our students can focus on the numbers and the action, rather than the language that they do not yet have familiarity with.
Manipulatives are always available to all students to explain or figure out their work. Like so many of the other math strategies for emerging bilinguals, manipulatives are the most helpful when our students have ample time to practice these routines and skills. We start the year (and the introduction of each new manipulative or activity) with structured modeling. There are opportunities during math talks, whole group discussions, and small group work for students to share and demonstrate ideas and strategies.
Encouraging the use of manipulatives to share ideas is a particularly important math strategy for emerging bilingual students. Often times our emerging bilingual students have a solid understanding of math concepts and skills, however, we can easily miss this if the instructions are in English and their only opportunity to share their ideas is through writing. Using manipulatives to share a solution to a problem allows emerging bilingual students to communicate without the use of spoken or written words. They can show an amount, a shape, a fraction, or an action through manipulatives. Whether you teach first, second, or third grade, there are great manipulatives to support ALL of your students.
While my relationships with my students are imperative for knowing where they are at in their understanding of math concepts, it is not the only relationship that will support their academic and social growth. Peers are a huge part of a child’s school experience, and I consider peer support an important math strategy for emerging bilinguals. As we know, creating a safe, welcoming classroom community encourages our students to take positive academic and social risks.
One way to make sure that safe, supportive community carries over into my math block is to consider peer relationships when planning partner and group work. Throughout the math block, and over the course of the year, I vary the groupings that I use with math centers and groups. Sometimes students work in small groups, other times independently, and other times with a partner. We spend time front-loading these routines by modeling and practicing how to work with a partner or small group, and how to ask a peer for help.
Considering student groupings is a key math strategy for emerging bilinguals because I want to make sure that the emerging bilingual students in my classroom feel safe and supported and not alone when attempting a math activity. This means thinking carefully about partnerships between students. I make sure that students that are early in their English understanding always have a trusted peer to work with. Depending on the students and the school year, a trusted peer could mean:
- Another peer with the same home language
- A peer working on the same skill
- A peer that I know an emerging bilingual studnet feels comfortable with
I want to make sure that emerging bilingual students feel comfortable playing a math game with a peer or knowing that they can check in with that peer to ask a question during independent work. With emerging bilingual students, especially at the beginning of the year, we may practice a game together or practice some of the independent math center activities during our small group time. This allows partners to get used to playing together and practice asking and answering questions while in the support of our small group.
I love Math Centers for SO MANY REASONS! With our emerging bilingual students, math centers really knock it out of the park. The structure of math centers in and of itself provides so many levels of support for our emerging bilingual students and makes math centers a great math strategy.
In a school day that can seem very overwhelming for our emerging bilingual students, sometimes having some choice and autonomy in the day is exactly what they need to fill their bucket. When content and conversations can be frustrating, having the choice of a game that feels just right can be so powerful for a young student. Math centers offer our students that choice. Whether it’s choosing the game or activity, or choosing whether to work with a partner or independently, or choosing which manipulative to use to solve a problem, we cannot underestimate student choice as an empowering math strategy for emerging bilingual students.
Repetitive Games and Activities
The beauty of repetitive games and activities is that students only need to learn the rules and expectations once! With games like Bump, Kaboom, and Square Capture (to name a few ), once students learn the rules of the game, they are able to focus on the content. And then when we move on to a new unit or concept in math, students do not need to learn the rules of a new game. Instead, we play that same game, that they are already confident with, but change the content. So, over the course of the year, my students might play Bump with addition, then place value, then fractions, then time, then money, then geometry… You get the idea.
Not only do the games that we play in Math Centers repeat across the curriculum, but the games themselves are repetitive. Each game offers students MANY opportunities to practice a skill. This builds math fluency and allows students to notice patterns and make connections that they wouldn’t otherwise if doing a quick math worksheet with multiple types of problems on one page. This is a crucial math strategy for emerging bilingual students because once they settle into playing a game or working on an activity, they know what to expect. Students can practice a skill without worrying that the task will change and they’ll be lost as to what to do next. Repetitive math games give our emerging bilingual students more opportunities to find success and build confidence with math skills and strategies.
Variety of Games on the Same Skill
Not only do I make sure to offer the same games throughout the school year, but I make sure to offer a variety of games on the same skill. While one reason is that variety is fun and gives kids choice. For our emerging bilingual students, this allows multiple ways to practice a skill and it allows us as teachers to make sure that we have games and activities available that are a good fit for our students. Some games may be more language/ direction heavy, so offering other games to practice the same skill or concept means that ALL students can practice that skill or concept.
Different access points to the games and activities
Have I raved enough about games and activities yet? Well, I’ve got one more reason why this key part of math centers is such a powerful math strategy for emerging bilinguals. Not only do repetitive games repeat across the curriculum and concepts, but within a concept of skill, there are various levels of the games. So, for addition bump, for example, all kids might be playing the game, but some kids may play sums to 20, while other kids are playing sums to ten, and another group may be working on number identification. The possibilities are endless.
By meeting students where they are AND providing the same game or activity with different access points means that ALL students can play the game. Students are not singled out for being “not ready” to play a particular game. Everyone is able to work at their just-right level.
Math journals are a great opportunity for our students to show their learning and understanding visually. They make a solid math strategy for emerging bilinguals because, like games, open-ended math journals offer a variety of access points. Students can engage with the concept at their personal level of understanding.
Students are able to share their ideas using any combination of pictures, numbers, or words. These practices mean that emerging bilingual students can show us their thinking, perhaps in a deeper way than if we had handed them a worksheet with space for one right answer. So often our emerging bilingual students have math skills that they’ve developed in their home language long before entering our classroom. Utilizing the opened ended prompts and variety in how answers are shown means that this math strategy for emerging bilinguals allows us to really see what our students know and understand.
Differentiate to meet math understanding
Differentiating give us meaningful ways to figure out where students are with a particular standard. We can’t assume that because a student is early in their English language acquisition, that they are also at an early stage of their math understanding. Utilizing pre-assessment and informal observations, as well as being open to a variety of ways for our students to show us what they truly understand, we can appropriately and accurately differentiate the work that we offer our students and the lessons that we share in small groups.
It’s not necessarily true that all of our emerging bilingual students will be in the same math group or need the same math support. When we have accurate information about our student’s understanding and skills, we can differentiate accordingly. Some students may be working on the standard prior, while others need more challenge but support with language.
Lean on specialists
There’s another math strategy for emerging bilinguals that can pack a powerful punch: specialists and colleagues in your building. Don’t feel like you have to go it alone. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve struggled to come up with a strategy or approach for something on my own. I don’t know all the answers and I don’t always know what I don’t know. I’ve been so lucky to have worked with some pretty amazing colleagues over the years. I’ve found that many specialists are eager and open to collaborating and sharing ideas to support students.
An EL teacher is a great resource to check in with. If your students work with an EL teacher inside or outside of your classroom, but not during math, you can always ask if there are strategies for vocabulary or skills that would carry over into math. Previewing an upcoming unit or topic with your EL teacher and asking for suggestions can be very helpful.
If your school doesn’t have an EL teacher or they’re on a tight schedule, checking in with another specialist or colleague is a great option. Language learning is complex and kids are at various stages in the process, so another set of eyes thinking about how to best meet the needs of our students is often helpful. The more we are able to talk about strategies with trusted colleagues, the more we can keep these meaningful conversations going.
I hope you’ve found these math strategies for emerging bilinguals helpful and are able to pick a few to add to your bag of tricks. Have another to add to the list? Drop it in the comments below!