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Math Word Walls for ELL Students

August 8, 2015

This is for all of you out there who are teaching a class of English Language Learners, primarily refugee students who have been in the country for less than a year with a limited knowledge of both math and English and need something to do on the first day. If this describes you (anyone?), then boy is this a neat thing to do and we should talk some more about math strategies for this totally awesome and unique demographic. And if this doesn’t describe you, then maybe that first sentence intrigues you enough to keep reading.

The Activity

I knew I wanted to have a word wall for this class. I knew I wanted to have some kind of language assessment on the first day. I knew I wanted to have some kind of math assessment on the first day. I knew I wanted to begin this year by validating that part of learning math is also learning the language that describes math, and translating between languages is a valuable skill.

I also did not know how fluent my students would be, what their previous math experiences were, or even if they had even been in school before. There is a lot of uncertainty on the first day with these classes.

So, I made this document:

(Basically, it asks everyone to write the word for numerical digits, mathematical operations, variables, and a few others in both their language and English)

We went through the top two sentences together so I could know what languages were in my room, then went through how to complete the first few lines of 0 and 1, then had them continue to get as far as they could. I answered any spelling questions on the board (ie: parenthesis) and helped them fill in the English side, and let them fill in the side for their own language.

As they finished, I grouped students by common language and had them compare, then gave them post-its (a different color for each language) and had them write their words on the post-its, then put them on the wall I had already created. The result looks something like this:

2015-08-07 16.08.52 2015-08-07 16.08.55 2015-08-07 16.09.03

Each post-it is a different language. They are: kinyarwanda, somali, swahili, french, and spanish.

If a student didn’t know a word in their own language, I got them on a computer (oh – there are computers in this class – most of the work they’ll do will be paced on a computer. That’s another story) and had them find an online translator, then look up how to translate from the English word into their own language. This was an unintended consequence of this activity, but a good one – I knew eventually I wanted students to be comfortable accessing translators, but I hadn’t intended it to be something that happened on the first day in this activity. So, getting them on a translating website on the first day was a nice added benefit to this.

When I first had the wall setup, I didn’t have the English words written out yet – I had planned to write those myself with the students during the activity. But, what ended up happening was I had one student who didn’t know any of the words in either English or her own language, so I had her write the English words on the notecards (which explains why some of the words are slightly misspelled in the pictures above) and match them to the correct symbol, which was a good use of her time in starting to learn the words for each symbol.

Other Things That Happened:

  • I learned ‘Zero’ is basically the same in every language
  • The letters on keyboards are capital letters – which means if I ask a student to type something but I write it in lower case, they can’t find the keys to type it in.
  • I was expecting most students to know these symbols in their own language but maybe not in English. The opposite was true – more students than I expected didn’t know these words in their language but did know them in English (but couldn’t spell them). This tells me a lot about the students in my room and what to expect, and validates this activity as a really excellent pre-assessment.
  • A cool thing that happened: There were two girls who spoke the same language – girl A was very timid and didn’t understand a lot of English, girl B was more involved and interactive and had clearly been in the country for longer than girl A. During this activity, girl B knew all the English words, but not the words in her own language – but, girl A knew the words in her language but not in English. So, a neat peer-teaching moment arose as they worked together to teach each other the words in the different languages, and I’m hoping this inspired some confidence in girl A to engage more with her peers and with the class.
  • The word wall has already come in handy – students could refer to it when we did some translation exercises the next day (ie: what is ‘five plus three equals eight’ written in math?), especially for the new students who came into my class the next day.

From → ELL Math

  1. I love this idea! One of my sections has a similar population to your students and this idea resonates very strongly with me: “I knew I wanted to begin this year by validating that part of learning math is also learning the language that describes math, and translating between languages is a valuable skill.” Thanks for sharing.

  2. I am maths professor & love to teaching… I appreciate your thoughts, did bookmark your blog for reading more ideas…!!!


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