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Mathematics and EAL

How to support EAL learners in mathematics

There is sometimes a tendency to assume that learning an additional language across the curriculum will develop ‘naturally’ in a school environment or will largely be achieved through English as a subject. Research indicates that it takes as long as seven years for pupils learning EAL to acquire a level of English proficiency comparable to native English speaking peers. Teachers cannot wait for pupils learning EAL to develop this high level of English language before tackling the demands of the curriculum. Their task is to enable pupils to participate in curriculum content learning while they are simultaneously learning English. To do this, they must ensure that subject content is linked to language objectives and that language objectives are compatible with subject content.

Whilst this general principle is often accepted, there is relatively little guidance available which illustrates exactly how this might be achieved in a subject context. Here we bring together information about the use of language within mathematics as well as what practical steps have been found to be useful for supporting the language and subject learning of EAL pupils in the mathematics classroom.

How do you see the role of language in mathematics? How you respond to this question may well influence how you think about EAL in mathematics classrooms. If you think that mathematics is a language, you might see learning English as less important: if pupils can learn to speak mathematics, their proficiency in English might not matter. Whilst the idea that mathematics is a language is a useful metaphor, it should not be allowed to obscure the complex role of language in mathematics. Learners' English does matter as in our classrooms English provides the means for learners to think about mathematics, as well as to express that thinking. If learners are not supported to develop mathematical English, they are less likely to be able to participate fully in mathematics lessons, and so will have fewer opportunities to make progress in the subject.