Helping students develop the language of mathematics begins by helping them develop their conceptual understanding using the four language acquisition skills: Reading, Writing, Speaking, and Listening.
As can be seen from the diagram in Figure 1, reading and listening are inputs the brain uses to receive information. Writing and speaking are outputs the brain uses to communicate information about the inputs it receives. In-between the inputs and the outputs, the brain processes information (thinking) by organizing the information it sees and hears. Beginning ELL students can particularly be seen undergoing this organization process. As they work to acquire the English language, they often translate English into their native language before attempting to speak or write in English. Although the majority of math students are not English language learners; they are, in a sense, math language learners, and have some of the same struggles translating the unfamiliar language of math into a language they understand. Similar to English language development, students that are able to quickly process and organize the math inputs they receive are considered to be more fluent in language of mathematics.
Therefore, as teachers formatively assess students’ progress toward fluency in the language of mathematics it is important to ensure that their learning experiences give teachers access to the “thinking processes” and “language organization activities” that led to the speaking and writing activities that are evaluated in class – not just the right or wrong answer.
In the most fundamental sense, our ability to become fluent in the language of mathematics is directly related to our ability to use our reading, writing, listening, and speaking skills to communicate our mathematical understandings. The Common Core states, “As students advance through the grades and master the standards in reading, writing, speaking, listening, they are able to exhibit with increasing fullness and regularity the following capacities of the literate individual:
- They demonstrate independence.
- They build strong content knowledge.
- They respond to the varying demands of audience, task, purpose, and discipline.
- They comprehend as well as critique.
- They value evidence.
- They use technology and digital media strategically and capably.
- They come to understand other perspectives and cultures.
The above description of a literate student effectively helps us visualize what literacy can look like in a math class. However, this standard is not an excerpt from the Common Core math standards. It is actually an excerpt from the Common Core English Language Arts standards. The message here is that literacy in all content areas should look very similar. Regardless of content, literate students are able to use their reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills to access information, process that information, and communicate their ideas to others. In order to help students become fluent in the language of any content area, including mathematics, teachers should provide meaningful opportunities for students to read, write, listen and speak about their learning experiences.