What does the latest research say about multilingual learners and teaching mathematics?

September 17, 2020

We—teachers, administrators, content creators, and community organizers—have long agreed that multilingual students deserve the best educational opportunities we can provide. Backed by the latest research, the Coalition for English Learner Equity (CELE) Statement of Agreement lays out a plan of how we can achieve this goal. My colleagues and I wrote the companion paper to this agreement to summarize the several decades of academic research on multilingual students and mathematics learning that form the foundation of this statement. Written with a general audience in mind, the companion paper explains the research in everyday language and summarizes the most important things we can do to support multilingual mathematics learners.

The underlying assumption that permeates the research literature is the premise that multilingual students come to school with linguistic and mathematical skills and practices that can be leveraged in the mathematics classroom. Learning English is no longer seen as a prerequisite to learning academic content; in fact, multilingualism can be an asset to learning if educators are prepared to treat it as such. The paper provides the theoretical and research-based backing that can guide us as we seek to replace outdated deficit views of multilingual learners with a more contemporary view that honors the intelligence and capabilities of our students.

Whether you are an educator, a content developer, or a community organizer, the paper is a valuable resource for decision-making. We outline major areas of research such as the current educational context, how language and content knowledge develop in learners, effective instructional and assessment strategies, and the role of families and communities. For example, the research is clear that language proficiency and content knowledge develop simultaneously through meaningful interactions. This idea has important implications for our multilingual students. First, we should not “track” students into particular mathematics courses based on their English proficiency. Second, instruction should not rely exclusively on spoken or written English to communicate content knowledge. Instead, we must provide students with multiple, varied communication contexts (e.g., small group, large group, formal and informal writing) and allow them to utilize both everyday English and their home languages. Finally, students must be given opportunities to engage meaningfully with mathematical content in order to develop understanding.

It is our hope that stakeholders will find much within the paper to inform both long-term planning and in-the-moment decisions that affect multilingual students. The paper shares what we know from the research, but stakeholders should also reflect on their own experiences and listen to and consider the experiences of others because language and mathematics instruction are informed by social and political concerns that, if not addressed, can lead well-intentioned educators to reproduce the very inequities they set out to redress.

Read the Math white paper here: "Multilingual Students and Mathematics Education"

Are you interested in what the research says for ELA? Click here: "English Learners and English Language Arts Education"

Julianne Foxworthy Gonzalez is currently a PhD candidate at the University of California Santa Cruz. Her research is motivated by her experiences teaching multilingual fifth and sixth grade students in the Bay Area and focuses on mathematical discussions and statistical literacy.

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