Jean Harvey, Shannon Lindstedt and Christa Beebe of TNTP (The New Teacher Project), Multilingual Learners

Mike Wallus, Vice President for Educator Support


Today on the Podcast, a team of educational leaders from TNTP, an organization dedicated to great teaching, talks about myths surrounding multilingual learners and introduces specific strategies educators can use to leverage their assets and support meaningful understanding of mathematics.

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If you’re interested in more on this topic, consider the following article for further reading:

How to Support Multilingual Learners With Higher Expectations


Mike: As a young educator, I was often unsure how to support the multilingual learners in my classroom. And my well-intended attempts didn't always have the impact that I hoped they would. Today we're returning to a topic we've discussed before on the podcast: support for multilingual learners in the mathematics classroom. We'll talk about some of the myths surrounding multilingual learners and dig into specific strategies educators can use to leverage their assets and support meaningful understanding of mathematics. Today we're joined by Shannon Lindstedt, Jean Harvey and Christa Beebe from TNTP (The New Teacher Project). We're going to talk with them about a set of tools and practices they've developed to support educators who serve multilingual learners. 

Mike: Welcome, Shannon, Jean and Christa. Great to have you with us today. 

Jean: Thanks for having us. 

Shannon: Yeah, happy to be here. 

Mike: So, Jean, I'd like to start with a question for you. I'm wondering if you could talk a bit about the misconceptions that we have in the education community involving multilingual learners. What is it that we've misunderstood about multilingual learners and how to support them in a mathematics classroom? 

Jean: So, one of the most prominent misconceptions is that multilingual learners—MLLs as we call them—cannot engage in grade-level math because they do not yet have the language to understand the task. In MLL Good to Great, we take teachers through a planning protocol that has them assess English language demands in a task. They consider what mathematical academic language a student needs to know to answer a problem. We ask teachers to also analyze what language in a problem may be new to students, and then they think through what visuals and additional supports could help students to understand the language and the problem. We also think through what language students will need to use to express their understanding. This step is so important because it empowers MLLs to be part of the conversation, and they can grow their language at the same time. When teachers first implement the supports, they're always so delighted how well their MLLs were able to participate in class that day. When the language is supported and MLLs can fully engage in the task, teachers see how capable they are and how eager they are to dig into the rigorous learning. 

Jean: The supports also help to dispel another common myth, which is that MLLs might lack the confidence or the ability to engage in class discussions. Sometimes teachers avoid calling on MLLs because they fear embarrassing students. However, when our teachers provide the language supports that help students to understand the task and to produce the language needed to express their understanding, they become part of the conversation. MLLs need that access to critical language, and they'll need some independent think time to craft a response. But they're fully capable of engaging in grade-level math and expressing their understanding. By offering both receptive and productive language supports, MLLs are able to unlock content and demonstrate their incredible learning. We know that actively engaging in class discussions is important for all students, but it's absolutely essential for MLLs.

Mike: There was a particular piece that you mentioned. You talked about the need for individual think time. I'm wondering if you can just say a little bit more about that, particularly with respect to MLL students? 

Jean: Absolutely. So, one thing that we learned early on was that it's not always instinctive to give kids the think time that they need to gather their thoughts because they're not just processing the math in a given problem, they're also assembling the language that they need to use. In many cases, they're translating from their native language into English and trying to create…figure out how they're going to express their understanding in English. So, giving them that independent think time is incredibly important for MLLs. 

Mike: Well, I will say that is most certainly something that is a shift in practice for folks. That level of comfort with what feels like silence—but for the learner is actually think time. That makes a ton of sense to me. Jean, I'm wondering if you could talk in a little bit more depth about the work that you did around vocabulary. And particularly, like, I taught kindergarten and first grade for quite a long time, so this actually feels really relevant to some of the things that I remember thinking about when I had children who may not have been familiar with language, let alone not having the language we were working in be their first language. Can you just talk a little bit about what that process was like for educators as you took them through it? 

Jean: We would ask teachers to first think about what's the mathematical academic language that students need to know to access this problem? And so, if it was a problem on ratios, we'd think of, “What are the terms they might need to use to discuss this problem?” They might not be terms that are specifically listed in the problem, but it's the mathematical academic language that might come up. Then we look at the problem itself, and we wouldn't just focus on vocabulary. There might be phrases in there that are really unfamiliar. We were working with one problem that was about students running a ticket booth and what they were charging for different blocks of tickets. And just the phrase “running the ticket booth” was really different because running has multiple meanings. And students know what it means to run, um, you know, using their feet. But running the ticket booth was very different. And so, we supported that with some illustrations and put a sentence by it so that students could make that connection. Sometimes teachers will make some connection to native language supports as well. So, using Spanish or whatever the student's native language is as a bridge to accessing some of the new language and making sure they have that connection as well. And then finally, we'd think about what language the students are going to produce. So, what do they need to say to express their understanding and how can we support them in forming the language to express that understanding? 

Mike: That's fascinating. What strikes me is how often the work that you're describing stops with the mathematical vocabulary and doesn't actually do that next piece, which feels really important. Like this idea: What is it about the vocabulary that we're using that we assume people understand, but that, like, “running the booth,” that's (chuckles)—as you say it, and actually think and contemplate it—that's confusing. 

Jean: Yeah, it's very confusing. And once teachers realize that that's what it takes to support language, you don't have to have an advanced degree in linguistics. It doesn't have to be deeply complicated. You're just really planning for what students might need to know to understand the mathematics in that task.

Mike: What are some of the moves that educators can make when they discover this language that we take for granted as everyone understanding? Would you be willing to talk a little bit about, what are the adaptations or the steps that folks take to help unpack that for children? 

Jean: Yeah, absolutely. I think once you've identified different terms within just that day's lesson versus your academic language, you're going to want to have some consistent supports in your classroom. So, a lot of teachers will create a word wall. But a word wall isn't really effective unless students are using it. So, terms, definitions, and I'd also say having an illustrated word wall can be a game changer for some of the common vocabulary you're going to see within a unit—having that up so students can continually reference it and understand what it means. When we looked at the vocabulary and the phrases within the problem, we also connected it to visuals so we can explain what it means. We can provide students a written definition, but when you're still learning a language, the visuals are so essential to actually understanding what the term means or understanding it in context. 

Mike: So, one of the things I'm curious about is, what are some of the understandings, the ahas, and the practices that you saw emerging as teachers engaged in this cycle of PL (professional learning)? 

Shannon: I can respond to this one. We work with teachers to implement specific instructional strategies during their math classes, such as those mathematical language routines or the five practices. So, by using the variety of language supports incorporated in the program, we have definitely seen teachers develop a more nuanced understanding of what makes an appropriate scaffold and how to differentiate support for students based on their levels of English proficiency. It's not uncommon for teachers and the program to voice concerns that the tasks that we're using or how we're asking students to participate is too hard. And we know that this is coming from a good place. Teachers want their students to feel supported and be successful. So, we talk a lot about productive struggle and the role that it plays in students' meaning making and development in math class, and how critical it is that multilingual learners also get those opportunities to grapple with deep math concepts. 

Mike: I think you're hinting at my next question, too, which is: Can you talk a little bit about the impacts that you observed on student identity and their learning as a result of this work? 

Christa: Yeah, I'll take this one. This is my most favorite thing to talk about, cause I think this is where we saw the biggest impact, um, in the work that we were doing. And when we think about student identities, we almost had to take a step back and think about teacher identities. Especially when we think about mathematics and the role that that plays. We know that there's been a big emphasis on mindset and, and how important it is when we're learning mathematics to have this growth mindset and recognize that mistakes are OK and good, and that's how we learn. But we also know that math classes historically haven't been set up that way, right? We focus on a right or a wrong answer. So, there's not a lot of opportunity for kids in a traditional math class setting to experience the joy of making a mistake and working through it. 

Christa: The hard thing about that is, we want teachers to create that type of math class for kids, but they may not have experienced that type of math class as a learner. So, in Good to Great, we give teachers the opportunity to reflect on who they are as math learners, who they were as math learners, and what their experiences were. And it's not surprising that many of our stories were the same, right? Like, we didn't see ourselves as math people, math is not our favorite subject, you know, on and on. And when we started to reflect on, “Well, how does that come through in our teaching?” Some things kind of bubble to the surface. Some teachers would look at that and say, “Math is hard for me, so I want to make it easier for my kids.” They want to make this a more positive experience, trying to make it easier for them to, to solve the problem. 

Christa: So inadvertently, they're kind of taking away that power, making that mistake, and learning through it. And so, teachers had the opportunity to pause and think about, “Who did I position as mathematically capable today?” Really what that means is, “Who did we give the opportunity to be seen as a mathematical thinker, who got to answer the questions, who got to share their thinking?” And when teachers were reflecting on that, some of them started to realize that, “No, I may not be giving my multilingual learners the same opportunities as my native English speakers.” And once we had those discussions, we pulled in those tools that support that productive and receptive language, and we challenged teachers to call on their multilingual learners the next day. And let's see what happens. They did the supports in class, called on those kids, and what we noticed in those debriefs that came after that: The teachers were starting to share, “Once I gave them those tools, they ran with it.” We heard things like, “My kids enjoy math class; they want to participate. They're raising their hands.” All of this from providing the right supports, digging in deeper to some of these mindset issues that we may have ourselves as math learners. And then how do we shift that experience for students so that they can develop their mathematical identities in this? 

Mike: The psychology of all of this is fascinating because you're making me think about the idea of intent versus impact, right? So, the intentions of an educator who might be making some of the choices that you're talking about are positive, right? Like they're genuinely in a spot where it's like, “I don't want to make a child feel embarrassed.” On the other hand, the child doesn't know that. They just know that they're not getting called on, and they're making up their own story about why that's true. And that's also true for all the other kids in the class who are noticing that as well. And I think the thing that I'm coming around to is, it really does come back to the practices. You all gave them a set of tools to allow them to feel comfortable calling on those kids because they felt they could support them in the moment, and that produced a massive shift. 

Christa: Yeah, absolutely. Once they had the tools, they were able to see what their kids had in them all along. 

Mike: You know, one of the things that jumps out for me is, there are a lot of demands on teachers’ time. But what you described, I can imagine this happening in a grade-level team. I can imagine it happening at a PLC, and really investing in the types of practices that you all just described feels like the payoff is pretty solid. So, I wanted to ask you all for educators or instructional leaders who are interested in learning more about the Good to Great professional learning that you all have built, designed and implemented, where can they go to actually learn more? 

Jean: Sure. Thanks for asking that. So, we recently published a free toolkit that contains many of our MLL Good to Great resources, including the planning and reflection tools that we've been talking about today, as well as videos and exemplars. So, if someone just wants to learn a little bit more, they can go to the toolkit and see what some of the tools look like. The toolkit is called More Than Right Answers: Math Instruction for Multilingual Learners, and it's available on So, the toolkit also includes links to contact us at TNTP with any additional questions. And anyone interested in learning more could also email me directly. It's 

Mike: Thank you all so much for this conversation. I've learned a lot, and it was a pleasure talking to y'all.

Jean: Thank you so much for having us. 

Shannon: Thanks, Mike. It was great to be here. Mike: This podcast is brought to you by The Math Learning Center and the Maier Math Foundation, dedicated to inspiring and enabling individuals to discover and develop their mathematical confidence and ability.