Math and Multilingual Students

This year I have been trying to intentionally read more books. Some have been educational while others have been more non-fiction wonderings. During the last couple weeks I have had the opportunity to read Teaching Math to Multilingual Students with a group of Illinois educators brought together by the Metro Chicago Mathematics Initiative. We read a few chapters and meet online to discuss our thinking. We are about halfway through the book right now and this post will document some of my takeaways as I think about math through a different lens.


“Contrary to popular belief, student silence is often the result of unfair or inequitable positioning in content classrooms” p. 27

To be honest, the idea of positioning multilingual learners as classroom leaders has not been at the forefront of my mind. Positioning is is a concept that involves identity and access. Teachers are required to make many decisions lesson by lesson and they impact positioning within their classrooms based on what is being communicated and who is being a spectator. Positioning can have students’ competencies recognized or ignored by highlighting certain work/strategies and dismissing others. Intentionally planning out phrases that can be used might be one way to think about positioning differently moving forward. In the moment this can required a large amount of patience as the pace of the class has the potential to be disrupted. Hello wait time! Teachers should refocus students’ attention if disrespectful behavior occurs. It might be helpful to revisit norms to ensure everyone is on the same page.

Encountering Unknown Contexts

“How will you identify factors that hinder participation for multilingual learners in your mathematical classroom?” p. 43

Teachers tend to engage students in learning through contexts that are understandable. Many of the problems in district-adopted resources involves a few problems related to sports. From what I see, those sports at the K-5 level in math class are primarily basketball, football, baseball and occasionally soccer. Understanding the games themselves is a prerequisite to answering the question. These may be unknown to multilingual learners. Put the shoe on the other foot. I doubt many students in my class would be able to complete a math word problem about the game cricket without understanding the game first. This also applies to the vocabulary terms used to describe the game.

Group Work

“… One student grabbed Julia’s pencil out of her hand to complete her mathematical work for her.” p. 45

Many math classrooms are instructionally moving in the direction of having students work together to discuss their mathematical thinking. Communicating understandings and having to defend them is an important tasks and group dynamics play a role here. Teachers should discuss with their class what productive partnerships look and sound like. This might also be an important time to revisit math station norms. I have noticed that groups may sometimes show that patience is lacking and a particular students will complete the work for the entire group. I am assuming most educators have seen this type of behavior. I have also seen students take pencils out of the hands of others to write the answer. This is an act of positioning and the behavior should be addressed. This year has been trying in having consistent quality discussions in small groups. The last couple years of elearning and hybrid instruction has significantly decreased the amount of opportunities students have had to work with others outside of a Zoom breakout room. Getting back into the groove of being able to facilitate a conversation and possibly encouraging students to use sentence starters can go a long way in helping.

I am hoping to learn more as the book study continues.

Author: Matt Coaty

I've taught elementary students for the past 14 years. I enjoy reading educational research and learning from my PLN. Words on this blog are my own.

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