Wednesday / May 29

Embedding Language and Culture to Achieve Equity in Mathematics and Science Classrooms

It is vital that teachers of multilingual learners (MLLs) help develop these learners’ primary language and academic language skills along with providing equitable access to high-quality mathematics and science content. I recently collaborated on a book with Michael Beiersdorf and Theodore Ruiz Sagun titled Equity Moves to Support Multilingual Learners in Mathematics and Science. In this book, we examine what we have termed Equity Moves—research-based strategies that include both language and culturally responsive scaffolds—to help guide math and science teachers to better serve their MLL students by supporting their development both of the content and the language of math and science.

A few weeks ago, my colleague Michael Beiersdorf wrote a blog about how Equity Moves could be enacted in science and math. The title of the blog was Supporting Multilingual Learner Science Success Through Vocabulary Equity Moves. In this blog, I will briefly outline the overarching Equity Moves included in the book, and I will explain why they are essential for multilingual learners (MLLs) to succeed in mathematics and science classrooms. I will also provide examples of how educators can put these ideas to work in the classroom.

In our book, we organize Equity Moves into two broad categories: Language Scaffolds and Culturally Responsive Scaffolds (See Figure 1).

Figure 1: Equity Moves Defined

Language Scaffolds Defined

We focus on the following four specific language scaffolds that MLLs would benefit from most in mathematics and science, as well as examples of how educators might embed and implement these language scaffolds.

  • Vocabulary. As suggested by Michael in his blog, “our students are presented with new discipline-specific Tier 3 vocabulary words (such as organism, electromagnetism, or gravity) alongside high-frequency academic Tier 2 vocabulary words (such as analyze or summarize). This vocabulary is critical in helping our students understand the science concepts we must teach.” Additionally, such words must be taught explicitly, and Michael presented us with two examples of how to do that: vocabulary preassessments and vocabulary cognate word walls.
  • Discourse. MLLs, and most students, make meaning through talk, especially when content is particularly cognitively and linguistically demanding. As such, it is important to intentionally embed opportunities for students to talk (engage in discourse) in math and science classes. This scaffold can be implemented in mathematics, for example, by encouraging students to work together in groups or pairs to solve a problem using manipulatives. In science, educators can encourage students to work together in pairs to complete a lab experiment; this can be especially effective when each student is assigned separate tasks and they are required to exchange information afterward. With discourse, it’s important to remember what one teacher from the Los Angeles Unified School District said after shadowing an MLL: “The person talking the most is learning the most . . . and I’m doing the most talking in my classroom” (Soto, 2020). This teacher realized that she had to gradually release responsibility around academic oral language to her students throughout the day.
  • Modes of Representation. Modes of representation are the ways in which information or knowledge are stored or encoded in memory. Developmental psychologist Jerome Bruner (1966) studied how knowledge is represented and organized through different modes of thinking (or representation). Specifically, in his research on the cognitive development of children, Bruner proposed three modes of representation, which are helpful when aligned with the stages of language development: enactive representation (action-based), iconic representation (image-based), and symbolic representation (language-based).
    • In enactive representation, which James Asher (1969) described as a method of teaching language using physical movements to connect to verbal input, an educator teaching a lesson on the water cycle, for example, might use a hand gesture for each of the steps—or teachers might use puppets or toys to communicate with students, especially in the early phases of language development.
    • Iconic representation refers to how information is stored as sensory images, icons, or visual representations. Such representation is illustrated with diagrams or illustrations that accompany verbal information. As with language development, oftentimes a visual representation is recalled before a linguistic label. For example, a mathematics teacher might have students focus on the diagrams within a particular chapter before they start solving a word problem. Then, if the diagram isn’t helpful, they can redevelop the diagram to assist them.
    • In symbolic representation knowledge is stored as words, mathematical symbols, or other symbol systems, such as musical symbols, which assist with recall of cognitively demanding content. In a science class, for example, teachers might ask students to develop a song to recall the 6 Steps to Prevent Climate Change. Elementary students might write their song based on a familiar tune, such as “Old MacDonald Had a Farm,” and secondary students might write their song based on a culturally relevant song on the radio.
  • Text Features. Text features (such as vocabulary, headings, tips, feature boxes) are used to help navigate and locate specific information provided in an expository text in an easier and more efficient manner. Teaching students to move through text features can assist them with accessing their background knowledge related to the content (Honig, Diamond, & Gutlohn, 2018). If the content is unfamiliar, then text features can assist with frontloading key vocabulary and concepts. MLLs, in particular, benefit from opportunities to access background knowledge, frontloading key vocabulary, discussing new concepts, as well as explicit instruction around the text type that they will be reading (Gibbons, 2015). For example, at the beginning of the school year, in both mathematics and science classrooms, students can analyze and unpack the text features inherent in their textbooks. They can also review the table of contents to determine how at least one chapter is constructed. Then, they can analyze to see if all of the chapters are organized in the same way. This will assist with making the reading of the text less rigorous and cause less apprehension.

It is vital that teachers of multilingual learners (MLLs) help develop these learners’ primary language and academic language skills along with providing equitable access to high-quality mathematics and science content.

Culturally Responsive Scaffolds Defined

Because language and culture are intertwined, in our book on Equity Moves we integrated the 8 Competencies for Culturally Responsive Teaching (New American, 2020) to address the cultural components that educators should be aware of in our classrooms, in the material that we are teaching, and most important, with the students who we are teaching.

For example, CRT Competency 8 encourages educators to honor and include home languages and communication patterns in the classroom setting. This strategy directly honors students’ home language by advocating for MLLs to retain and practice their primary language, and recommends that those language skills are used strategically to transfer to English.  For example, data suggest that about 40% of all English words have cognates (words that sound alike and have similar meaning in two different languages) in Spanish (Colorin Colorado, 2007). Educators can encourage students to work in pairs to have a cognate scavenger hunt, to see who might be able to find the most cognates, after terms are defined for students.

Putting Equity Moves to Use in Your Classroom

We encourage you to analyze how you may be addressing Equity Moves–both language and culture–in your classroom and with your own instructional materials. You can start small by trying on one of the strategies suggested here, like the cognate scavenger hunt, developing a song to recall key information, or allowing students to work in pairs or groups to complete an assignment as a way of encouraging conversation.


Asher, James (1969). The Total Physical Response Approach to Second Language Learning.

Modern Language Journal, 53, No. 1, pp. 3–17

Bruner, J. S. (1960). The Process of Education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Eight Competencies for Culturally Responsive Teaching. Washington, DC: New

American, 2020.

Gibbons, P. (2015), Scaffolding Language, Scaffolding Content. Boston, MA: Heinemann.

Honig, B., Diamond, L., & Gutlohn, L. (2018). Teaching Reading Sourcebook. Core Literacy


Soto, I. (2020). Shadowing Multilingual Learners. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Soto, I., Sagun, T., Beiersdorf, M. (2023). Equity Moves to Support Multilingual Learners in

Mathematics and Science, Grades K-8. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Written by

Ivannia Soto, Ph.D, is Professor of Education and Director of Graduate Programs at Whittier College, where she also coordinates the Bilingual Authorization program. Dr. Soto specializes in language acquisition, systemic reform for multilingual learners (MLLs), and urban education. As a consultant, Soto has worked with Stanford University’s School Redesign Network (SRN), WestEd, and the California Association for Bilingual Education (CABE), as well as a variety of districts and county offices in California, providing technical assistance for systemic reform for MLLs. Recently, Soto also directed a CABE bilingual teacher and administrator program across California.

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