Four Practices and Two Strategies That Invite ELLs to Talk in Math - ASCD
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July 26, 2018

Four Practices and Two Strategies That Invite ELLs to Talk in Math

Instructional Strategies

Academic talk—conversations through which students question, analyze, argue, and work out their understanding of content—is a crucial component of classrooms of all ages. All students deserve the opportunity to engage with their peers and teachers about their content learning, but too often, genuine, open-ended conversations are far more likely to happen in classrooms with older students, more academically advanced students, or students who are privileged in various ways. In particular, English language learners can get locked out of academic conversations because they are still developing English vocabulary and conversation skills. Students learning English need at least equal opportunities to participate in academic conversations in order to support their content learning as well as to improve their English vocabulary and language skills.

As a teacher, there are several things to consider when planning for academic talk with a heterogeneous group of students.

  1. Listening is a first step. Some students may not feel comfortable participating in whole-class conversations. This is especially true for students who are very new to English and may be in a silent period, which Krashen notes is a natural and common phase of learning a new language (1985). Not speaking does not necessarily mean not participating. For these English learners, listening to the ideas of others will help them gain vocabulary and understanding as they move toward more active participation.

  2. Use social scaffolds. Students' conversation skills may lag, which may make it difficult for them to actively participate. This can be addressed by spending some time explicitly teaching conversation skills through social conversations or using content topics with which students are more confident.

  3. Add visual processing time. Writing or drawing ideas about a question or problem can be a helpful way for some students to prepare for a conversation. Students who might be hesitant to get started speaking may feel more confident if they have time to organize their thoughts through writing or drawing.

  4. Step back. As much as possible, teachers should listen rather than speak during academic conversations. As teachers, we often feel we must correct misconceptions or add on to ideas to build students' understanding. However, the power of conversations is in students doing this for one another or even working it out for themselves. Teachers can add guidance during follow-up instruction that helps students work through ideas or challenge misconceptions that came up during discussion. By stepping back during student conversations, we give students space to build their own understanding rather than passively accept it from their teacher.

With these principles and practices in mind, you can try out several strategies for encouraging math conversations that every student can access. For example, you might try out math teacher Dan Meyer's "three-act math" approach. Meyer encourages teachers to think of math problems as a story that starts with a visual hook (an image or video) that introduces the conflict or problem in the first act, requires the protagonist to seek resources and tools to problem solve in the second act, and presents the problem resolution and potential for a sequel or extension of the problem in the third act. Meyer offers a full explanation of this strategy and dozens of sample three-act math problems on his blog.

Another strategy for inviting English language learners into math conversations are "which one doesn't belong?" activities. The teacher presents four images (they can be geometric, numerical, patterns, or any other math concept). In groups or as a whole class, students decide which of the four doesn't belong and explain why that one is different from the other three. Any answer can be correct as long as the reason for isolating an outlier image is valid. The possibility for multiple perspectives and de-emphasizing a single, correct answer makes this activity welcoming to emergent English speakers and students who are building confidence in math.

Following any of these math talk generating activities, take a few moments to do a reflective think-aloud for students. Identify some things students did well, either in conversation skills or math content or both. Over time, students can take over these conversation debriefs and highlight moves they or their classmates made to help everyone improve their math skills and knowledge. Everyone deserves opportunities to learn in conversation with their peers. These strategies and considerations will create access points for English language learners and other students to gain confidence and competence talking about the math concepts they are learning.


Krashen, S. D. (1985). The input hypothesis: Issues and implications. London and New York: Addison-Wesley Longman Ltd.

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