I am officially a fourth grader! And suddenly I am immersed in the world of geometry. I find that I’m becoming receptive of math vocabulary, but not yet productive of it. That’s still a good sign. Never the less, my first geometry question threw me for a loop. I find myself having to spend a lot of time focusing on words and decoding questions to figure out what I’m doing. I never knew geometry had so many words.

This week, I spent about 2hours and 18 minutes practicing math, but I mastered 91 skills, which is twenty more than last week, when I spent thirty minutes longer studying. I have to admit, I was surprised at this turn of events. It feels like it’s getting harder, but perhaps I’m hitting a stride. My guess is that, as I said, I’m starting to recognize some of the math vocabulary, and when I do, I can figure out what I’m supposed to be doing.

Twice, however, I have lost my skill in “solving addition and subtraction word problems” and had to go back into basic math to prove to Khan Academy that I can, in fact, de-code the Spanish to solve the math, which in the long run, I really can’t. The key here is the wording. When the question says “Walmart had 48 backpacks, and now has 12 less, how many does Walmart have?” I can use context clues to figure out that I need to subtract. When the question is “Walmart had 48 backpacks and sold 12, how many are there now?” if I don’t know what “sold” means, I have no idea what to do.

It’s interesting. I’m currently taking a class on Content Area Literacy, and words like “sold” are not things that we think of when we consider content area literacy, but for ELLs, who may run into these words in math classes before they do in their English classes, it is. Therefore, it’s important for teachers to know what vocabulary students have available to them and scaffold where necessary.

And I know that an important part of math is recognizing how the math itself fits into real-world scenarios, and that when we run into those real world scenarios, you’re more likely to be thinking of them in terms of “sold” than “now has less.” Part of math actually is understanding how everyday vocabulary equates into math equations: budgeting money or time, figuring out how much paint you need to buy to paint wall, if you have enough space on your tablet to download this new app, etc. It’s everywhere, and that makes sense for native speakers, but that means that for ELLs, you can’t just teach them the math concepts, you have to also teach them the language of the context in which those concepts happen in real life. You can’t expect them to problem-solve based on the meaning of the words because the words themselves have no meaning.

In the meantime, I’ve also figured out how to use context clues. I was given a problem that had a rectangle, and two sides labeled with numbers. The question said something about a girl wanting to do something with this rectangle, and how much of something does she need for it. I knew it was either a problem of area or perimeter, but which? (See, this is one of the real-world questions that only makes sense if you have serious vocabulary in the language.) To figure this out, I looked at the what their video was titled, the one that they suggest to watch if you get stuck. Finding Perimeters. Now I have my answer. Yes, I kind of feel like this is cheating, but it’s not fair in the first place that I’m being given a problem I can’t read. ELLs go through this every day.

Therefore: Takeaway for this week? Help your ELLs learn the context clues. Teach any and all additional vocabulary, not only what is specific to your content area, and while they are still learning, stay consistent with the vocabulary they do have. I know this means that you can’t assess whether or not they can decode the real-world version of the math problem, but unless you’re going to provide that problem written for them in the native language, you assess that anyway, so stick to what is possible.