Re-envisioning Math Instruction for Multilingual Learners


You’re 11 years old, and you’ve just moved to a new city.  School starts tomorrow, and you go to bed nervous and excited about meeting new friends and learning new things.  You walk into 1st period the next morning – math, your favorite!  You were really good at math back in your old school and regularly helped your friends understand the lessons.

The teacher, Mr. Byrns, calls roll and the students, sitting in rows, answer “Here!” one by one. The lesson begins. Mr. Byrns begins drawing examples on the board, different shapes….maybe they’re buildings? He explains what he’s doing as he goes. But here’s the problem…you can’t understand much of what he says! He’s calling on other students and they’re answering his questions. You’re terrified he’s going to call on you next. Eventually, it happens. Mr. Byrns calls on you to answer a question and you can’t understand most of what he’s saying! Panicked, you clam up. Mr. Byrns asks again. More silence. Eventually another student says something, and a look of comprehension flashes across his face. They’ve just told him you don’t speak English very well. For the rest of the year, Mr. Byrns continues class in the same way, and when it’s time to do the worksheet, he puts a student that also speaks your language next to you in hopes they can translate. You’re embarrassed to put the other student out, and you withdraw from learning. Math quickly becomes something out of reach, and you fall behind.

I’m embarrassed to say that I was that teacher! I was a first-year teacher that moved to an inner city from a small town, and I had no experience or training in teaching EL students. Fast forward 12 years… I still think about Hector, that student I didn’t know how to teach.

I wish that I had taught with a program like enVision Mathematics back then. enVision provides teachers with research-backed strategies from WIDA and The Council of Great City Schools to lead EL students to success with learning math.

EVERY SINGLE LESSON of enVision Math, provides strategies to reach Entering, Developing, and Bridging levels of EL students with lesson-specific ideas, as well as academic vocabulary activities.

Let’s look at the following enVision Math lesson opener with a volume problem:

If I went back in time to my first year of teaching, I’d be at the overhead or whiteboard, showing the students step-by-step how to approach this problem. But by doing this, remember I left Hector behind!

Let’s see what the enVision Teacher’s Edition and Language Support Handbook have to say about this lesson:

As you can see, as a first-year teacher, I would have had a much better starting point for helping Hector and other EL students with the above ideas that get students reading, writing, speaking, and listening to each other (see figure below from enVision’s Language Support Handbook). Doing things as simple as this will lower the barrier to learning.

Looking back, if I had a program like enVision, I would have had tools to understand how to reach those EL students in my class during the lesson. But what about academic vocabulary? What about during the practice problems when I split them into groups and had a student translate every problem for Hector? Is there a better way?


enVision Math provides students with Academic Vocabulary support at the lesson level.

See these screengrabs from the printed enVision Math workbooks and the enVision Math program on Realize.

“Low frequency” (rarely comes up in conversational language but often in math class) academic vocabulary translated into 6 languages.

Research says students learn academic vocabulary better in context, rather than being pre-taught. These activities from enVision’s online platform, Realize, give teachers and students a tool to do that.

Where students like Hector didn’t have resources before, now they have these tools to help level the playing field!

What about the problems? Take the problem below:

Guided Practice problems from the enVision Math program

Guided Practice Problems

There are some words in here that might trip Hector up. What could I have done as his teacher? Let’s take a look at the enVision authors’ suggestions below. Pay close attention to the language modalities here (refer to figure above). Is Hector engaging in all of them by following these suggestions?

nVision’s Language Support Handbook offers teachers strategies like the above to use with their ELL students (or ALL students!) for every single lesson.

After Hector has engaged in the lesson, it’s important for both his mathematics and language acquisition to self-assess. The enVision feature shown below would have been a game changer when I was a first-year teacher, not to mention a veteran teacher!

enVision gives students a tool (see above) to self-assess and reflect both on the Mathematical Goal and the Language Goal of the lesson.

If time machines were a thing, I’d go back and use these strategies with Hector. When he went on to build that time machine, I could say I helped him with the building blocks.

Request samples of our K-12 math solutions.

Note: Fresh Ideas for Teaching blog contributors have been compensated for sharing personal teaching experiences on our blog. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any other agency, organization, employer or company.


About the Author

Andrew Byrns

Mathematics Specialist