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How to Structure Academic Math Conversations to Support English Learners

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A teacher with shoulder-length dark hair wearing a pink sweater and white shirt points to a student in rows of desks facing her. All students at desk have a hand raised.

Excerpted from “Teaching Math to English Learners” by Adrian Mendoza with Tina Beene. Published by Seidlitz Education, 2022.

Embracing academic conversations in the math classroom becomes routine when teachers intentionally prepare content-based linguistic supports to guide and scaffold language. These opportunities for language are important because verbalizing thinking helps students with sense- making, analysis, and reasoning. When students process and engage in sharing, they gain problem-solving perspectives and address misconceptions or incompleteness in their ideas more than if they worked independently (Webb et al., 2014).

Teaching Math to English Learners book coverStructured conversations in a math classroom are especially crucial when teaching English learners (ELs) or students who may feel frustrated or anxious when classmates’ responses to questions bypass the problem-solving process and skip to the solution. When the EL has a different, viable perspective, they might struggle to communicate. There is still a misconception that the first to respond is smarter than the rest, leaving slower students with a feeling of failure or a self-perception that math is not for them. On the contrary, some of the best responses come from students who think carefully about the process they used to formulate an answer, but students must be reminded of this. In fact, some of the best mathematicians are slow thinkers (Boaler, 2015).

When providing structured conversations in math classrooms, equity also comes into play. We ensure that every student can engage in learning experiences as we provide them with academic, cognitive, linguistic, and affective support. Academic conversations are an essential component, as they directly affect reading and writing. The more structured opportunities students have to talk and process mathematical ideas, the better readers and writers they will become.

As a former instructional coach in a school district, one of my goals was to identify what I call “ghost students,” or students who almost never give answers even though teachers want them to speak. These students often go from class to class and never practice academic English, much less the language of mathematics. Once I knew who these “ghost students” were, I intentionally created support systems to ensure 100 percent participation. This support provided all students with language learning opportunities during math lessons and held them accountable. Some strategies that assist with total participation include the use of sentence stems, word banks, visuals, total response signals, and student randomization and rotation.

Table describing how to modify instruction for different levels of English fluency. (Courtesy of Seidlitz Education.)

Conversations in Math

Conversations in Math is a routine designed to provide opportunities for students to share their mathematical ideas, much like Parrish’s Number Talks (2014). The difference is that the structure has a language focus, and students gain access to language by discussing their strategies for solving a problem and explaining the reasoning behind their work.


Conversations in Math can be applied using the QSSSA strategy (Seidlitz & Perryman, 2021) to help students generate strategic approaches to problem-solving. This strategy helps students use new academic language during conversation. The teacher asks the essential question that will be addressed in the conversation. Students show a signal when they are ready to respond and are given a sentence stem to use for their response. After sharing with a partner, students are chosen randomly to share with their own group.

  • Question: Present class with a problem. Ask the class a question seeking ideas about solving the math problem. Example: “What is one way to find the product of 48 x 25?”
  • Signal: Provide thinking time while students work on the math problem. Ask students to give you a response signal when they are ready to answer the question. Example: Thumbs up on your chest when you have a response.
  • Stem: Provide sentence stems to get the students ready to share their ideas. “In my head, I saw…” “My first step was…” “I noticed” “One way to solve the problem is…” Example: One way to find the product of 48 x 25 is …
  • Share: Have students share their responses with other students in pairs, triads, or groups. Example: Have students share with their elbow partner.
  • Assess: Determine the quality of student discussions and the level of understanding by randomly selecting students to share aloud or by having all students write their responses. Example: Randomize to call on four students and hear their ideas.

An anchor chart, using three or four student ideas per class period with their names, is encouraged. Record the ideas to create a visual for the class.

Example of an anchor chart for a math problem. (Courtesy of Seidlitz Education.)

Adrian MendozaAdrian Mendoza is a consultant with Seidlitz Education, providing professional development to educators in the areas of bilingual education, math and student engagement. Adrian previously worked as an instructional math coach in San Marcos CISD and has a master’s degree in educational leadership from Texas State University.

Tina BeeneTina Beene is a consultant with Seidlitz Education. She is the author of Teaching Social Studies to ELLs and co-author of Teaching Science to English Learners with Stephen Fleenor. Before joining the Seidlitz team, she was a bilingual teacher, campus instructional coach and district program coordinator in North Texas. Tina has a bachelor’s degree in international studies with a focus on Latin American economies from Texas A&M and a master’s in education with reading specialist certification from Texas Wesleyan University.


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