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Multilingual Math

Multilingual Math

When looking for authentic and meaningful multilingual opportunities, math might be the last subject one would consider. But thanks to a partnership between English Language Acquisition (ELA) teacher Megan Dreher and FISW Math Coach Gareth Rose, students at FISW were provided just such an opportunity. The team had been developing consistent vocabulary and practices for students to use to engage in number talks, but most were conducted in English. “We thought, let’s use our school-wide community time to allow elementary and middle school students to participate in number talks and problem-solving activities in their home languages,” said Ms. Dreher. The idea worked.

Math is a universal language in which many ELA learners can succeed early on. However, the schoolwide number talks and inquiry-driven math instruction have increased the English language component necessary for ELA students to be successful in Math. Allowing students to conduct number talks in their home language helps to improve their understanding of both math concepts and vocabulary. Beyond those fundamentals though, it also helps support students’ home languages and cultural identities, and increases their self-confidence and integration into the FIS community. 

FISW has long benefited from its small size, which provides excellent opportunities for mixed-age learning groups. The multilingual number talks have enabled older and younger students to connect with their language peers. This in turn has provided authentic leadership opportunities for the older students, as well as providing younger students with a genuine celebration and use for their home languages.

After trialing the multilingual number talk, students and teachers were asked for input on their experiences. Overall, feedback was positive. Teachers were keen to slightly restructure the groupings to increase equitable participation among all students. The subsequent multilingual math time saw students problem solving in their home languages.

In addition to shuffling groups so that the younger students could show greater leadership, Ms. Dreher and Mr. Rose presented students with an additional challenge. Each group was given a set of playing cards, an iPad, and a measuring stick. The students could be as creative as they wanted but were tasked with building a variety of card structures that would stand for at least 15 seconds. Students were exceptionally engaged and used a variety of approaches to solving the challenge.

The final project of the year was for students to create a multilingual math dictionary. This math dictionary, it is hoped, will become an invaluable tool for all students, teachers and parents in supporting learning in math across the school. When completing the task, students were able to build upon the relationships they had developed earlier to work together to create the dictionary. The multilingual dictionary will be available on ipads across the school and for use at home. There will also be multilingual word clouds created that teachers can use in their classrooms when teaching specific math vocabulary.

Current restrictions due to Covid-19 have made whole-school multilingual learning experiences difficult to hold. But like most of the rest of the world, the program’s organizers have come up with ways to keep student groups connected: Zoom and Google. This year’s mixed-group number talks started off with students self-sorting themselves into language-based teams. After students choose their teams, they collaborated through Zoom. Teachers and students experienced a few hiccups using Zoom, but organizers learned a few things that will undoubtedly help during future sessions. And when those take place, math learning will remain at the forefront - regardless of the language being spoken.

Megan Dreher and Gareth Rose
FISW Teachers

  • ELA
  • FISW Middle School
  • STEM
  • curriculum