Historically, English language learner (ELL) instruction has primarily focused on reading and writing. The reasons for this are twofold: 1) Reading and writing are the most obvious, immediate learning needs, and 2) federal and state reclassification requirements are focused on these subjects. Conventional thinking says that literacy must be the primary focus, and that when literacy scores rise, they will pull up math scores alongside them.
The truth is a little more complex. As a result of this literacy-first focus, by the time ELLs become proficient readers in English, they are often many years behind in math. Middle school students are still at the elementary level, and upper elementary students are still figuring out the basics of numeracy.
Classroom teachers often do not have the time to spend on individual math tutoring to bring each student up to proficiency. ELL teachers are focused on reading and writing. Consequently, the math gap grows larger every year.
When ELLs reach middle school two years behind in math (or more), it is very difficult for them to catch up. Despite their growing English proficiency, they will often still struggle to complete the high school math requirements for graduation.
Addressing the math issue early on is actually the key to success.
Closing the Math Gap
Researchers have suggested both that strong early math skills are top indicators of college and career success, and that STEM-related texts offer a powerful opportunity to engage students in reading by building on their budding interests. Additionally, the academic language students learn in math, from terminology to word problems, gives meaning and purpose to English reading. In short, the theory that literacy is crucial to math—which it is—works just as well the other way around.
It also helps that numbers are numbers, and working with them is natural to speakers of any language. When students succeed in math, it can provide a boost of confidence. ELLs are able to feel like they are part of their overall class, rather than outsiders looking in.
For that success to happen, however, ELLs need individualized, differentiated instruction to close the math gap—but challenges abound. Schools do not have the resources for frequent personal math tutoring. Computer-based solutions at school run into the time limitations imposed by busy school days. And low-income ELLs can lack stable internet connections and computers at home.
Schools large and small know that this is an issue, and are working to find a solution.
The answer might be closer than you think: It’s probably sitting in your pocket. More than 80 percent of low-income families have smartphones, a number that grows every year. If schools can harness these devices for at-home blended learning, students can complete a rigorous curriculum that addresses the math standards on their own time, putting math breakthroughs much more in reach.
The general idea is to use instruction at school combined with smartphone-based lessons at home that are monitored by teachers. Through web-based reports, teachers can track each student’s usage and assessment data to inform instruction at school. By blending school and home time, students can close the gap in math and move toward proficiency.
(Next page: Taking a blended approach to math for ELL)
Taking a Blended Approach
A great example of this approach is at Gompers Preparatory School in San Diego, where a large percentage of students are ELLs. Incoming sixth-graders and their parents are given an orientation and log-in instructions for a phone-friendly math app, Learning Upgrade, and introduced to the flipped learning concept where students preview material at home before it’s formally taught in class.
The school shares its expectation that students will complete a full intervention curriculum of math lessons. Students, parents, and teachers buy in to a common goal of completing the curriculum before state testing at the end of the school year. The understanding is that, to achieve the goal, students will need to spend school time and home time, on computers and smartphones.
Many Gompers students have their own mobile phones, and others use their parents’ phones. The school builds in excitement and rewards through certificates, ceremonies, and recognition. And crucially, math teachers see a difference: When students have “pre-learned” a topic in the app, they perform much better when they encounter that topic in the classroom.
Educators need to have a goal to keep ELLs moving towards math proficiency from the very beginning. If teachers can find math resources that are effective with ELLs at school and at home, then students can make continuous progress in math, literacy, and beyond.