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How to Teach Math in a Dual Language Classroom

Teaching math in a dual language classroom can be a unique and rewarding experience. With emergent bilingual students who speak both Spanish and English, it’s important to find ways to effectively teach math concepts in both languages. 

Whether you’re teaching 3rd grade, 4th grade, or 5th grade, there are strategies and techniques that can help you successfully navigate how to teach math in a language classroom.

In this blog post, I’ll explore some of the best practices for teaching math in a dual language class in both Spanish and English to help you support all of your students in their math learning journey.

1. Be purposeful about when to switch languages

In most bilingual programs, the upper elementary grades spend some time in both languages. Some programs divide this by subject (like all math in English, all science in Spanish) but many divide it by time, such as one week in English and one week in Spanish.

The problem with switching languages too frequently is that students will try to wait you out until you switch to the language they are more comfortable in. What do I mean by this?

Imagine that you are teaching geometry in Spanish. Your native English speakers may be struggling with some of the difficult vocabulary terms. If they know you are going to switch back to English in a few days, they may not try as hard and instead just wait for you to switch.

Instead, I recommend changing languages at the end of each chapter. This holds students accountable for learning in the language of instruction and not just waiting for the language to change before they engage. 

how to teach math for spanish dual language

2. Use concrete manipulatives and visuals

As students move up through the grades, I think we as teachers tend to use less and less of these supports to help our students. But I think this is a big mistake.

While good for everyone, using supports such as visuals, concrete manipulatives, and real world context is critical for language learners.

To do this, you might consider having your students:

  • Use base 10 blocks to model division
  • Draw area models to show multi-digit multiplication
  • Use number lines to model fraction addition (LINK to my post)

It also helps to have visual supports posted around the room.  A great example of this would be my bilingual fraction posters, which you can get here or by clicking the image below.

3. Provide language supports

Even though we’re talking about math, in a dual immersion program the emphasis is always on language! Language should be at the forefront of our minds as bilingual teachers. So when. you teach math in a dual language class, it’s incredibly important that you are providing language supports.

Language supports in math class might look like:

how to teach math in a dual language class

4. Connect the languages

When we switch languages, sometimes students see it as brand new learning when it’s still a continuation of the previous learning. Connecting the languages really helps make it clear that it’s not a “new thing”. This can be a big problem when you teach math in a dual language class.

So how can you connect the languages?

Use cognates. Cognates are abundant in math. Denominador/denominator, equación/equation, and rectángulo /rectangle come to mind. Make these connections explicit for students.

Use gestures. I like to use gestures in my class for certain words and concepts. For example, I have students cross their arms to show multiplication. For numerator, they gesture up to their head and for denominator they gesture down to their waist. When I switch languages, I consistently use the same gestures so students know it’s the same concept. 

Bridge the languages. The bridge is that part of the lesson or unit where the focus is on instructing students in how to transfer what they have learned and stored in one language into the other language. 

The focus shifts from teaching content to teaching the language of content in both of the students’ languages.

In math, this might look like reviewing previous English learning on fractions and then relearning the words in Spanish before you begin a Spanish unit on fractions.

teaching math in a dual language program

5. Use math notebooks

Math notebooks can be an effective tool for upper elementary students in a bilingual classroom. Not only do they provide a place for students to organize their mathematical thinking and problem-solving strategies, but they can also help support language development in both the target language and the student’s native language. 

By using math notebooks, students can visually represent mathematical concepts and vocabulary in a way that is meaningful to them, which can deepen their understanding of the content. Additionally, reviewing and reflecting on their work in the notebook can help students take ownership of their learning. 

Personally, I like to use fill in the blank notes, often called guided notes, with my students. Some students just take so long copying off the board, and for some students such as those with IEPs it’s a big hurdle. 

By using guided notes, students get the benefits of having notes to look at in their notebook but without having to copy everything off the board.

I have some guided notes for 5th grade available in my TPT store and I’m working on adding more and plan to add 4th grade as well. You can check those out here or by clicking the image below.

Get started!

In conclusion, teaching math in a dual language class requires a thoughtful and intentional approach. By using a variety of strategies and resources, such as manipulatives, visual aids, and language scaffolds, you can support students’ mathematical development while also promoting language acquisition and proficiency in both languages. 

how to teach math in Spanish dual immersion
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