by Dr. Shirley Disseler
Have you ever been in a room where you did not understand what the presenter was saying? Not just because it was difficult information, but because it was in another language? That’s what your ELL (English Language Learner) students may be experiencing in your math class.
Students who have limited English proficiency struggle with vocabulary that teachers often see as ordinary. This is particularly true with math because words that are math terms are often something else, too. For example: pie and pi are homophones, product can be something you purchase or the answer to a multiplication problem, and terms like plus sign are used even though they are no longer acceptable in the math world. Because the words are confusing, ELL students need a more hands-on approach. When they have tools to model the math, can draw to show understanding, and view pictures to see how to do things, they have a better chance of math success. They need the three-step process for true math retention — Do-Draw-Write/Explain — to truly comprehend the content.
Many teachers are not aware that some ELL students are born right here in the United States. Students living in poverty or in those who do not learn to read well can be part of the ELL category. Some kindergarteners come to school knowing less than 3000 words, and this greatly inhibits their ability to learn math through word problems in context.
Using LEGO® bricks to model mathematical thought reduces the stress for ELL students. The universally known product puts students on a more level playing field with their same-aged peers and provides a common conversation for modeling math content. I have seen many ELL students learn to do math with bricks. As they progress, they demonstrate true understanding of mathematical processes and conceptual ideas. Using the bricks is a great way to put students at ease with the learning process to build their confidence and spark engagement and motivation in the classroom.