Scaffolding Language for Deeper Math Thinking

By Sarah Kinney & Matt Hajdun, The Columbus School, Envigado, Colombia 

It's not uncommon to hear people say learning math is like learning an additional language.  If math can be as difficult as learning a language, though, consider how difficult it must be to learn math in an additional language!  Such is the case for our emergent bilingual learners at TCS in Envigado, Colombia.  Our K4-5th grade students use The Math Learning Center´s Bridges in Mathematics and Number Corner, an excellent concept and competency-based math program that also happens to be very language rich - both in problem-solving and student collaboration. When a student struggles in math, we must ask ourselves if the student is struggling with math, with the language, or both. Additionally, when we build scaffolds for our students, we are trying to think of their needs as mathematicians and their needs as emergent bilinguals. We are seeking to support increased metalinguistic awareness, complex oral output, and precise mathematical thinking. “When we help our students engage together in these practices [mathematical thinking] by facilitating their discussions of complex ideas, we provide multiple opportunities for all our students to become more effective users of English” (WCER, 2017).  It is no easy task, but we have been experimenting with different approaches and are making gains within our school.  

Over the last two years, we have been on an exciting journey that has already undergone various iterations, striving to better bridge the assets students have in their heritage languages (99% Spanish).  As a school, we have recently been working towards a mindset shift that ALL teachers are language teachers in all content areas. While having this aspiration, we don’t always have the resources.  We have great teachers who are masters of their craft.  However, not everyone has comfort either as an English as an additional language (EAL) teacher or being fully bilingual themselves. As such, it can be a challenge to find ways to create intentional contrastive analysis opportunities in English and Spanish or scaffold the language demands of math tasks.  To raise awareness of how complex this work is, we began by creating simple question-and-answer sentence frames in a few pilot classes. Then, with feedback from teachers, we realized that the sentence frames were initially one step ahead of the needs of most learners so we went back and began with Tier 3 vocabulary.  As we progressed and finessed, we found a highly successful way to build a teacher planner that builds a language progression throughout a month and gives teachers insights to the language standards and math concepts that are the focus for the monthly calendar grid.  We try to build a range of scaffolds that move students from the word level, to the sentence level, and then the discourse level.

Some teachers are using the supports we provided, with no adjustments, directly with learners.  Others, who feel more comfortable in their practice, have used the tools as a starting place for their planning.  Even more exciting are those teachers who use scaffolding structures in Math and then transfer them to additional content areas. Feedback on the ground has been extremely positive this year. One teacher shares, “The sample scaffolds have enabled my students to dig into the mathematical content more deeply and create more connections. They feel supported to leverage their mathematical thinking through the language supports and in this way the language is no longer a barrier to engagement” (Ana Pearson).  Another teacher who has been extending the work stated, “The planning documents help to guide me with the more explicit language that we want students to use. It has helped me to make sure I am integrating both language and content standards which leads me to give students more opportunities to talk about their learning and the patterns that they are noticing” (Courtney Woodward).  Our teachers have found this approach of providing resources that both scaffold language and develop mathematical thinking to be helpful, and we have heard student discourse and their use of precise language increase.  We are hopeful to see how expanding these supports advance teaching and learning in other content areas as well. 

Sarah Kinney is a K4-8 grade instructional coach who specializes in mathematics education. Matt Hajdun is the Assistant Director of Learning focusing on language development and multilingual equity.  They both work at the Columbus School, a K4- Grade 12, one way dual language school in Envigado, Colombia, where 99% of learners have Spanish as their heritage language. 

Work Cited:
 Wisconsin Center for Education Research (WCER). (2017). Why: Teach for a Future Where Everyone’s Ideas Matter. Doing and Talking Math and Science. Retrieved March 27, 2023, from