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DLLs and Math in Pre-K

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Supporting Dual Language learners (DLLs) in our classroom is a valuable opportunity to focus on the importance of language, think beyond the math, and provide for mathematical sense making in meaningful ways. Here are a few suggestions to make math meaningful in the classroom.

by Linda M. Platas

early math childrenThe presence of dual language learners (DLLs) provides valuable opportunities in a preschool classroom. They remind us that language is important, requiring us to think about the words we use in the mathematics we teach. They also encourage us to think beyond the mathematics of an activity. We know that the math is important, but so are motivation, context, engagement, and real-life home- and family connections. Perhaps, most of all, we are reminded that making sense of the math in a meaningful way is important in preschool. If we are to “hook” children on the beauty in mathematics and science, math must be meaningful to them.

How can we do this when children may understand all, some or none of what we say, when the vocabulary may be new and the concepts unfamiliar? Here are a few suggestions to make math meaningful in the classroom, not only for DLLs, but for all children.

Importance of Home Language

Teachers should let parents and children know that home languages are important to maintain. As noted in The Who, What, and Why of Dual Language Learners: Definitions and Benefits, knowing two or more languages can have short- and long-term positive consequences on children’s learning and cognition. In addition, self-esteem and cultural pride are correlated with knowing that others value one’s home language. Most cultures have a history of nursery rhymes, songs, and finger plays that involve mathematics. Parents and caregivers should be encouraged to use their home language to engage their children in these mathematically engaging activities. In the classroom, all children should be introduced to greetings and the counting words from one to ten in all home languages (teachers may need help from family and community members). This can promote pride in language among all children.

Teacher's Voice: Leveraging children’s home language It’s important to know your students so you as a teacher can think about how best to draw on their home language as a resource. I’ve had a child start counting in Spanish and then halfway through the sequence they switch over to English to keep going. Another student is starting to feel comfortable using expressive language in English, but when the conversation gets a bit more abstract or requires critical thinking, I need to go back to their home language.       -preschool teacher

Home Language Instruction in the Classroom

Because there is such variety in how language of instruction plays out in preschool classrooms (frequently dictated by law, regulations, traditions, and the availability of bilingual teachers of home languages), this document does not address which language environment might be better than another. Regardless of which language is used for instruction, the teachers’ fluency in that language is important. In order for children to gain accurate knowledge of mathematical vocabulary, teachers must be able to accurately use and pronounce mathematical terms. No matter what language is used for instruction in the classroom, supporting the acquisition of rich mathematical vocabulary is a must.

Importance of Family

When connections between home and school are complicated due to the lack of a common language (for instance, when teachers do not speak one or more of the home languages in their classrooms), it is important to find a way to communicate to parents what is going on in the classroom (again, teachers should look to the community or families for support if necessary). Communication should include the topics (e.g., weather, animals in the sea) and the mathematical concepts (counting, cardinality, shapes, measurement, etc.) that are supported in the classroom. Regardless of their level of education, all families can provide support for deeper conceptual knowledge in their children through home language conversations and activities.

Teacher's Voice: Building relationships with families
Communication with caretakers is key, especially with dual language learners. I remember finding out that a particular student told his parent that he didn’t like math because the other children knew the answers before him.  All I needed to do was take away the stress of the competitiveness out and it totally opened up for him.  Now he is so confident and loves math. If you can get that communication going with parents, even if it might require a lot of extra work at times, it's totally worth it.           -preschool teacher

Physical Gestures

We use physical gestures all the time in mathematics. Whether we are moving our hand over a group of objects indicating that all belong to a group, bringing our hands together to indicate the concept all together, or showing the quantity of four on our fingers, gestures are integral to preschool mathematics. Research shows that children who use gestures while solving problems may better generalize that knowledge to other problems.

Consistent Use of Vocabulary

Mathematics can sometimes be considered a language in and of itself. Just like in other areas of the curriculum, DLLs benefit from consistency and repetition. Mathematical vocabulary should be used throughout instruction, not just during math-specific activities.

Teacher's Voice: Contextualizing language
Vocabulary can be greatly understood through experiences. They can manipulate, touch, feel… even if they don’t yet have the language to pair it up with, the child is still experiencing it.  That can be perfect opportunity to incorporate language—to describe what we see the child doing.                      -preschool teacher

Here and Now

The use of pictures, objects and classroom interactions can provide visible and tangible support for the development of mathematical concepts. When counting objects, teachers can touch them one by one and say the counting numbers. When talking about attributes of shapes, teachers should show examples (e.g., when explaining that a triangle has three sides, she can run her finger along the sides of a triangle while counting them). When talking about measurement vocabulary, actions and objects can illustrate concepts (e.g., when talking about weight, put a lightweight object in one hand and a heavy one in the other, with the heavier one lower than the lighter one saying, “the rock is heavier than the feather”). Objects in the classroom can be used to illustrate spatial orientation: “I am sitting on the chair and the ball is under the chair and Thomás is in front of me.”

All in the Same Boat

The language of mathematics is most likely new for all children in a preschool classroom, regardless of whether the language of instruction is in their native language. Native speakers are learning the counting words, words for shapes, measurement, and spatial relations along with DLLs. Math activities can be a time for DLLs to experience satisfaction and pride in developing new skills right along with their native English-speaking peers.

Other Resources
Espinosa, L. M. (2013). Early education for dual language learners: Promoting school readiness and early school success. Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute

Novack, M. & Goldin-Meadow, S. (2015). Learning from gesture: How our hands change our minds. Educational Psychology Review, 27, 405-412

Church, R. B., Ayman-Nolley, S., & Mahootian, S. (2010). The role of gesture in bilingual education: Does gesture enhance learning?
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