I am reminded of the work of Cummins and Coelho, who, along with their contemporaries, point out that English Language Learners’ oral language can be deceiving on a number of levels:
First, many children pick up “street English”, or, the English required to get by socially in the classroom and on the playground, fairly quickly.
When these students confidently ask to go to the washroom, or joke loudly with their peers about an upcoming birthday party, we teachers may be easily tricked into thinking, “Oh, hey, look, they’re doing just fine!” But, as Cummins and Coelho remind us, it’s
Secondly, just because a student was born in Canada, doesn’t that mean English is her native language:
A first generation Canadian student whose family speaks only Hindi (or Mandarin, or Polish, or whatever) at home is still an English Language Learner. Although she may have absorbed more Canadian culture than her immigrant counterpart, this student is still new to many aspects of the language of instruction at school.
. . . .
I was reminded of both these facts during our recent Geometry unit, when one of my smarter kiddies kept referring to angles that were greater than right angles as “left angles”. At first I thought he was joking; I soon realised he really thought that the opposite of “right”, even in geometry, was “left”!
And that was not the last time we had a problem with "directions"…
I recently rec’d an email from one of my student’s neighbours, who tutors this student voluntarily most nights after school:
Yesterday, when the question was worded as "How many are left?", Nil argued that the question is not making any sense. Because "left" means like left arm and right means like right arm. So, just as we start believing that his English is adequate to solve a simple problem of calculating a difference, we are reminded that his English appears to be adequate only on the surface. We cannot see the turmoil inside his head.
How very true!
The word walls and vocabulary charts we post around the room are not just wallpaper, they really do provide necessary crutches for students struggling to learn both the math concept and the English words necessary to effectively express their understanding (or ask for clarification when they don’t understand). And despite stating a question orally, posting it on the wall/board/chart, and giving students time to read and understand it, we should assume – especially when working with ELL students – that most of the kids have only a limited understanding of what they are being asked to do when we send them off to work on a problem.
After all, not only are they learning in a language that is not their first, they are also exhausted from living and thinking in that language all day long at school. And for some of them in my classroom, that happens on less than 7 hours sleep the night before, and little or no breakfast that morning.
Both their bodies and their brains are really tired, which naturally takes its toll on learning.
With this in mind, we can be ready with guiding questions to prompt students as we circulate in the classroom while they work:
- What information does the problem give you?”
- What are you being asked to find?
- What words in the problem help you to figure this out?
- How might you find it?
- If there another way to solve the problem?
- Is your answer reasonable? Does your solution make sense? How do you know?
All of these questions help students deconstruct not only the problem, but also their thinking about the problem.
I know that my own "problem" is related to patience. I tend to become quickly intolerant when a student doesn’t seem to drink, even after I have led him to the proverbial water via multiple paths. I will try to remember that the problem may not always be one of mathematical understanding, but rather, could be a language learning issue.