ONLINE EXCLUSIVE: Talk is the ticket to teaching math to English learners

By Learning Forward
October 2019
Vol. 40, No. 5
The importance of talk for learning is widely acknowledged. And so is the idea that different discourse patterns can support different learning goals. In the mathematics classroom, it is essential that all students, including English learners, move from silent to verbal (Moschkovich, 2002). According to Principles to Actions: Ensuring Mathematical Success for All, effective teaching involves practices that “facilitate discourse among students to build shared understanding of mathematical ideas by analyzing and comparing students’ approaches and arguments” (NCTM, 2014, p. 29). Students need to learn to articulate their mathematical thinking, listen carefully to other students’ ideas, ask questions that clarify or refute those ideas, and recognize and articulate mathematical connections among ideas (Hufferd-Ackles, Fuson, & Sherin, 2004). We believe it is the teacher’s role to

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Kristen Malzahn, Paola Sztajn, and Daniel Heck

Kristen Malzahn ( is senior researcher at Horizon Research in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Paola Sztajn ( is associate dean for research and innovation at North Carolina State University College of Education. Daniel Heck ( is vice president at Horizon Research.

Key Strategies

Important elements for planning and enacting lessons that support English learners’ participation in mathematics discourse include:

  • Identify specific content and discourse goals and select techniques aimed at those goals.
  • Purposefully plan for and attend to all phases of the lesson. Each one contributes to promoting discourse for all students.
  • Select mathematical tasks and tools that support discourse and equitable access.
  • Understand that English learners are not all the same. They have different needs and require a variety of support structures to engage in classroom talk.
  • Incorporate techniques and targeted scaffolds that teach all students how to talk in productive ways.
  • Reflect on how mathematics instruction supports English learners’ engagement in discourse and their conceptual learning.


Borgioli, G. (2008). Equity for English language learners in mathematics classrooms. Teaching Children Mathematics, 15(3), 185-191.

Dick, L., White, T., Sztajn, P., Trocki, A., Heck, D., & Herrema, K. (2016). Supporting sense-making with mathematical bet lines. Teaching Children Mathematics, 22(9), 538-545.

Driscoll, M., Heck, D.J., & Malzahn, K.A. (2012). Knowledge for teaching English language learners mathematics: A dilemma. In S. Celedon-Pattichis & N. Ramirez (Eds.), Beyond good teaching: Advancing mathematics education for ELLs (pp. 163-181). Reston, VA: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

Echevarria, J., Frey, N., & Fisher, D. (2015). What it takes for English learners to succeed. Educational Leadership, 22(6), 22-26.

Hufferd-Ackles, K., Fuson, K.C., & Sherin, M.G. (2004). Describing levels and component of a math-talk learning community. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 35, 81-116.

Moschkovich, J. (2002). A situated and sociocultural perspective on bilingual mathematics learners.

Mathematical Thinking and Learning, 4, 189-212.

National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. (2014). Principles to actions: Ensuring mathematical success for all. Reston, VA: Author.

Ramirez, N. & Celedon-Pattichis, S. (2012). Second language development and implications for the mathematics classroom. In S. Celedon-Pattichis & N. Ramirez (Eds.), Beyond good teaching: Advancing mathematics education for ELLs (pp. 19-37). Reston, VA: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

Sztajn, P., Heck, D., & Malzahn, K. (2013). Project AIM: All included in mathematics: Year three annual report. Raleigh, NC: North Carolina State University & Horizon Research.

Trocki, A., Taylor, C., Starling, T., Sztajn, P., & Heck, D. (2015). Launching a discourse-rich mathematics lesson. Teaching Children Mathematics, 21(5), 276-281.

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