English Language Learners

Learning to Speak Math

The presence of a bilingual educator is proving pivotalto the success of technology initiatives aimed atdeveloping Spanish-speaking students' grasp of boththe concepts and the language of mathematics.

Learning to Speak MathFOR THE SECOND SEMESTER of the2008-2009 school year, Ginny Badger, a teaching assistantat Glenwood Springs High School in GlenwoodSprings, CO, sacrificed her planning period to superviseand support five Spanish-speaking students as theytackled a web-based tutoring program called Help Mathdesigned to help them decipher algebra.

"They weren't placed with me because of their inability to communicate in English," says Badger, who deals solely with English language learners (ELLs). "They were placed with me because their math skills were very poor."

By the end of the year, the five students were not only literate in computer and math terminology in the English language, but also had a solid grasp of concepts fundamental to algebra, such as fractions and proportion. Badger attributes this success to Help Math, noting, "It was probably the most important thing in my classroom."

But according to Judit Moschkovich, associate professor of mathematics education at the University of California-Santa Cruz and a principal investigator for the Center for the Mathematics Education of Latinos/as, Badger shouldn't overlook the importance of her own role in the students' achievement. That type of success, she says, depends on the presence of a bilingual educator to act as a bridge between the student and the technology.

Learning to Speak Math"Any tool without a person who knows mathematics there to interact with it will not develop an English language learner's understanding of complicated mathematical concepts," Moschkovich says. "I firmly believe that it would be difficult for students to really, deeply, understand a concept such as slope of a line-- what is the slope of a line? Where does it show up on a graph? Where does it appear in an equation?-- just by using a piece of software.

"They have to have conversations with someone who understands the mathematical concept of slope, and can talk to the students in both the language they are trying to learn-- English-- and the language that they already understand-- their first language. Research has shown that using one's first language supports a true understanding of mathematics."

Moschovich adds that Badger's ability to communicate with her students in their native language also means their use of technology like Help Math can be better targeted toward their individual needs.

"When students come into US schools from other countries, we don't always know what their previous schooling has been, or, for example, what their proficiency in reading is in their first language," she says. "You could have one student who reads very well in his first language and has taken many math classes in his home country, and another student who may still be learning to read in his native language. You have to get to know your students, and that requires being able to speak with them in their native language."

Survival Skills

Consider the five students Badger worked with last year, all of whom were new to US schools and didn't have the math or English skills to "swim," as she puts it, in a mainstream algebra class. Although all were in acute need of supplemental math instruction, they had differing levels of prior education and understanding of English.

"I had two students who understood some English but couldn't speak it," Badger says. "I had two girls who had come in new from Mexico in the beginning of the year, but they were picking up English very quickly. Then, a couple weeks into the semester, I got a new student-- a boy from Acapulco-- who had never even touched a computer, didn't know a word of English, and had absolutely no algebra skills."

The challenge for Badger goes beyond instruction. "It's my job to help them survive school," she says.

Badger set each student up to use Help Math, which is distributed by Digital Directions International and is designed specifically to bring the math skills of ELLs, particularly Spanish speakers, up to algebra level. The software launches with an assessment that brings out the critical deficiencies in the students' math education. It then creates a personalized curriculum from the program's 73 standards-based lessons. Each lesson contains a number of elements-- real-world scenarios that link the mathematical concepts to the students' everyday lives, vocabulary instruction, games, problem-solving skills, and visual representations-- intended to give the student a well-rounded understanding of math. Each lesson culminates in a final test, the results of which are sent to the classroom teacher for review.

Badger found that the use of the software quickly sparked the students' enthusiasm for learning math. "Within about two or three weeks of using the program, they'd walk right in the door, go to their computer, know what their assignment was, and start working," she says. "They were happy to do it. When we were finished with certain sections, they were excited about showing me what they had learned. It was fun to watch them go from 'What's a fraction?' to understanding that it's part of a whole. They were able to use the terminology. They were able to describe it and draw it. They had it. They understood."

The student from Acapulco who had never touched a computer turned out to have a knack for math, which Badger was able to nurture by having him work independently outside of the planning period.

"He not only learned how to manage the computer and use it as a learning tool," she says, "but he loved the math program. He used it to teach himself. He'd come in at lunch, he'd come in on his free time. He was so excited to have a tool that not only helped him with math, but also helped him pick up the language."

Any tool without a person there to interact with it will notdevelop an English language learner's understandingof complicated mathematical concepts.

Although Badger speaks Spanish, she conducts her classroom discussions in English, to encourage her students to use the English vocabulary they've acquired through the math software. "Part of our goal for this math program is for them to learn English, so I try to only use Spanish for side discussions and explanations, and only as needed," she says.

Her methods are bearing fruit. In June, each of Badger's five students tested high enough to be integrated into mainstream algebra classes this fall.

Exit Strategy

Devoting special attention to five struggling students would seem like a luxury to educators at Mar Vista High School in Imperial Beach, CA, where the number of English language learners who participate in a program similar to the one at Glenwood Springs High totals 130. Located on the border of California and Mexico, with a student population that is more than 70 percent Hispanic, Mar Vista High School is labeled a Program Improvement school under the No Child Left Behind Act, having not met all 22 benchmarks required of high schools at the federal level.

After analyzing the data from the California High School Exit Examination (CAHSEE), the school's principal, Louise Phipps, who held that position for 11 years before retiring in June, discovered that the subpar math skills of English language learners were causing the most trouble.

"The students who were really having problems were students who had passed the minimal requirements to be taken out of ELD [English Language Development] and had been integrated into mainstream classes," Phipps says. "They're still English learners, but they're scattered in classes throughout the school and they bring with them some very unique needs. As we studied the data, it was those students who'd been mainstreamed that were keeping us in Program Improvement."

While hunting for a solution to the problem, Phipps says that a resource teacher at the school discovered BrainX, webbased tutoring software whose library of digital content includes lessons and coursework created specifically for teaching math to ELLs. As they do with Math Help, students take an initial assessment that measures their math knowledge, and then the program creates a personalized series of lessons targeting the identified problem areas.

The presence of a "virtual tutor" adds to the software's personalization, becoming the face and voice behind the algorithm that carries out the instruction. BrainX CEO Bruce Lewolt explains: "The tutor 'greets' them each day. If the student is struggling, the tutor will pop up to provide encouragement or advice from a group of preset messages. If the student is struggling too much with a certain concept, it will make a note of where the student is struggling and then send a note to the teacher requesting additional assistance on that concept. But the most important thing about the digital tutor is that the student can pick someone to relate to."

The virtual tutors come from all ethnicities and speak many languages, so the student can choose one that will greet him in his native language. The program also features tutors that students would recognize, such as actors or professional athletes.

Mar Vista administrators recognize, however, that a virtual tutor is not enough. To get through to the 130 sophomores in the program and try to bring them to math proficiency on the CAHSEE, the school employs a flesh-and-blood one as well. That person is Jackie Sanchez, a math major from nearby San Diego State who last year received her teaching credential. Designated as a "consultant," Sanchez coaches the BrainX students and monitors their progress during their 30-minute, four-times-a-week study periods in the computer lab.

"I'm a mentor to the students," Sanchez says. "I develop a relationship with them so that [they think], 'Okay, Jackie's here. I need to be working. I need to do my best.'" She visits the students in their classrooms, and she says she makes a point of also visiting their parents. "That's one of the most important things, to introduce the parents to the program so they're aware of what we're doing."

Like Badger, Sanchez makes a point of speaking to her students in English, but she says that standard English is not a problem for them; most have been living in the United States for all their lives. Their classification as English language learners is a result of their lack of proficiency with the language of math, which bears itself out on standardized testing. "Even though they speak English with their friends, they don't have the academic vocabulary," Sanchez says.

Raised in Tijuana, Sanchez moved to Imperial Beach as a teenager, attended Mar Vista High, and has faced the same language challenges as her students. So she sees her consultant role as something more personal. "People don't believe that you can do it," she says. "They have low expectations of you because you don't know the language, because you come from a minority group. These students have those kinds of beliefs in their minds. So it's all about giving them confidence to show them they can do it. There is no reason why they can't be proficient in the CAHSEE if they already have other knowledge, you know? They are smart, they have the skills, and they can do it. I came here when I was 16 and I finished college. If I did it, you can do it."

The results make her case. Since adopting BrainX in 2007, Mar Vista has become a testament to the software's effectiveness. Even though the school has yet to shake its Program Improvement school status, the proficiency numbers on the CAHSEE have spiked upward. "We will not meet federal goals this year for English language learners, but we've had massive improvement across the board in terms of the percentage of those students who passed," Phipps says.

Forty-seven percent of the school's ELLs-- including students in ELD-- passed the exam; per Phipps, that's a 10-point bump north from 2008.

The school achieved that level of success by marrying BrainX with a strategic plan that made sure that the students using the software were the most likely to respond to such an intensive program. Bill Olinger, the school's categorical coordinator, worked with teachers and administrators to identify the students entering the 10th grade who would benefit the most from the software. "We look for students scoring at below-basic and basic levels on the standardized tests that the students take in the years before they take the CAHSEE," Olinger says. "Our goal is to bump those kids up so that they are scoring proficient on CAHSEE the first time they take the test in their 10th-grade year.

"It's not just the technology that achieved those results. It's our whole philosophy and how we built this intervention." The foundation of that construction is tangible, he adds.

"It's Jackie Sanchez. It's that one-on-one interaction that she gives the kids. You can't just give BrainX to the kids and turn them loose. It's that extra personal touch that you get when you're working with them."

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This article originally appeared in the 09/01/2009 issue of THE Journal.