Editor’s Note: This is the seventh in a series of guest posts that will be appearing on this blog about teaching math to English Language Learners.  I’ll be posting them over the next few weeks, and adding each one to The Best Resources For Teaching Common Core Math To English Language Learners.

The first in the series was “Speaking of Math: It’s time to talk in class” by Alycia Owen.

The second was “Support Reading, Support Mathematics Understanding” by Cindy Garcia.

The third was  Teaching Math To English Language Learners by Hannah Davis.

The fourth was Supporting ELLs in Math Instruction by Nicholas Pesola

The fifth was Quick tips for making ELL students comfortable in the Math Classroom by Sarah Peterson

The sixth was Guest Post: In Math, 2 is company and 3 is never a crowd by Alicia Fisher


Today’s post is by Catherine Murphy & Molly Rawding


Catherine Murphy is an English Language Learner specialist at Fiske Elementary school in Lexington, MA.  She has taught second language acquisition for 25 years at the high school, middle school, and elementary levels.

Molly Rawding has been a math coach at Fiske Elementary school for the past four years. She has over 17 years teaching and coaching at the middle and elementary school levels. She is interested in how students and teachers engage in mathematics in fun, creative ways that are focused on sense-making.


Our journey together started with the word “row”. Row is a tier 2 word that a teacher might typically overlook in direct instruction. Close inspection of a struggling 3rd grade student’s  state test score helped us to realize that in five problems answered incorrectly, the word “row” appeared in all of them. Here’s the catch: the student was not an ELL, but a Native English speaker  living in a monolingual home. This was just one example showing us that we needed to work on explicitly teaching the language of math to all students.

Our work around mathematics at Fiske Elementary uses Jo Boaler’s (retrieved from youcubed.org) positive math norms. The belief that “math is about connections and communicating” is a cornerstone for our work, and knowing that our ELLs needed scaffolds to engage with the academic language of math, we started by creating vocabulary resources for teachers. These resource would incorporate Marie Calderon’s 7 step method (“Teaching Reading & Comprehension to English Learners K‐5,” 2011) and Isabel Beck’s  (Bringing Words to Life, 2002) model for tiered vocabulary terms. As an ELL specialist and math coach, we collaboratively chose the academic terms that were most impactful for math comprehension and created powerpoint slides with visuals and oral language prompts. The final step was implementation so we took our show on the road. Starting in second grade classrooms, we introduced the terms “row” and “column.” According to Calderon’s 7 step technique, the direct instruction of tier two words should only be two or three minutes. At first, our vocabulary lessons were longer than we planned, but by the time we visited the third classroom, we could introduce one word with this strategy in just about three minutes. We modeled this strategy in many classrooms and continued to refine our work, ending up with a field-tested presentation which teachers could then implement on their own. The following spring, we shared our work at the 2015 MATSOL Conference in Framingham, MA. Currently these slides are in our district wide online curriculum map that is accessible to teachers.

adapted from Jo Boaler’s work – those norms can be found on youcubed.org.

After the row and column adventures, we began to explore other ways to talk about math in a way that encouraged students to share their thinking while creating a safe space for different ideas. One routine that we have used school-wide is “Which One Doesn’t Belong” (WODB). In this routine, four images are presented and there is a reason why each one does not belong. For example, in this WODB with dominoes, there is a reason why each image doesn’t belong. What can you come up with? To support our students, we routinely made word banks for these prompts which we shared with teachers to use in their classrooms. Students engaged in academic conversations using sentence frames and visuals.  Using comparative language, students discussed how the images were connected and/or different from each other. Prompts such as “how are they the same” and” how are they different” prepared students, not only for identifying values and attributes in math, but incorporating language using scaffolds.

In the coming year we plan to continue teaching the language of math by:

  1. Co-teaching lessons in the ELL pull-out classroom to expose our shared ELLs to rich academic language activities;
  2. Collaborating regularly to continue to develop scaffolds to promote math talk;
  3. Planning a math night and a morning coffee to engage families.

We are fortunate to have had opportunities to both co-teach in the classroom setting and in the ELL pull-out classroom. As an ELL teacher and a math coach, we understand that the key for all students to make sense of mathematics is to provide them with discrete instruction of academic language. By making time to collaborate and co-teach we are supporting our ELLs to engage in rich mathematics because everyone is a math person!