Research Rachel Restani

Bringing English Learners into the Math Discussion
February 2013

Access to learning in mathematics is a social justice issue, especially for English learners, according to UC Davis School of Education PhD students Leslie Banes and Rachel Restani.

At a recent conference on math education and social justice, “Creating Balance in an Unjust World,” Banes and Restani each led a workshop for teachers.  Their research, led in part by School of Education Associate Professor Rebecca Ambrose, focuses on the power of cooperative group learning that puts the focus on allowing students to talk about math and to pursue different paths to understanding.

“Our goal at the conference was to demonstrate how teachers can ensure equitable participation for English learners (ELs) in mathematics,” said Restani. To do this, Banes explained, teachers must understand the linguistic demands of math lessons and learn ways to support ELs in “talking mathematics.”

In the traditional form of didactic teaching, students often struggle to learn math, and teachers have few tools for measuring their learning, according to Restani, whose doctoral emphasis in in mathematics education.

“Math is a gatekeeper: it’s about who is let in and who is kept out,” said Banes, whose doctoral emphasis is in language, literacy and culture as well as mathematics education. Banes’ workshop, titled “Bringing English Learners into the Discussion,” provided teachers with concrete advice about how to engage English learners in speaking aloud and sharing their understanding of math problems in the classroom.

Encouraging students to talk out loud about math in the classrooms provides a number of benefits, according to Restani and Banes. Misconceptions are more easily surfaced, and students are given the opportunity to reason and justify their claims. Most importantly, talking about math in class pushes students beyond a shallow understanding by making them aware of differences between their thinking and that of others.

Of course, students are likely to discuss math openly only in a classroom that feels safe. “Through discourse, all of our identities come out,” said Restani, whose workshop “Faces of Math” focused on issues of student identity and creating an environment where students are encouraged to participate. “We see ourselves through other people’s eyes so their feedback can make or break us.”

This can be particularly true for English learners, according to Banes, because too often the focus can fall on their imperfect use of English, rather than on their mathematical reasoning. To help workshop participants understand how students might feel, Banes shared student reactions she gathered through classroom research. For example, a student may observe that “teachers think they are saving us from embarrassment by not calling on us,” but feel that “by not calling on us the teacher makes us feel invisible.”

“Student can participate in math discussions while they are learning English,” said Banes. “One thing teachers can do is to keep the focus on math content and move past grammatical or vocabulary errors.”

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