Learning math (in this case, probability) can be influenced by students' language skills. The Dual Language Enrichment Program at Cameron Elementary School immerses language minority and majority students in Spanish and English. A third-grade teacher and two parents wonder if language immersion will help or hinder students to think and behave like budding mathematicians. Is it reasonable to expect different curricula to "interact," producing deep understanding of content while shaping intellectual skills?

Students learn third-grade content and gain bilingualism in an elementary dual language program

The Jeffries have questions about the Dual Language Enrichment Program at Cameron Elementary School.

Sloane Jeffries taped the cardboard box shut with a tired but satisfied sigh. Although not every item was packed, there wasn’t much left to do before the movers arrived this weekend. It was hard to believe that in less than a week, she and her husband Tom and their 8-year old son Matthew would be living in the city suburbs. Even though she would miss country life, she was excited about the change.

One of the most appealing things about their new house was its close proximity to nearby Cameron Elementary School. Matthew had been enrolled in a private school to avoid the hour-plus bus ride to and from school each day. Now that they would have a school just blocks away, the Jeffries were pleased that they would be able to send him to public school. Matthew could even walk or ride his bike there if he wanted!

Read about Cameron Elementary School below:

Once they got Matthew’s classroom assignment though, they realized the principal was recommending him for a dual language program. Matthew had taken Spanish since kindergarten at his private school, and he had tested well enough to be admitted to the bilingual program. It felt like an honor, at first.

But then Sloane and Tom met one of their new neighbors with a daughter in elementary school. She’d pulled her daughter out of the program, saying she was concerned the intense foreign language instruction would slow Debbie down in math, science and social studies. She didn’t want her child to fall behind.

Sloane and Tom were surprised. Neither of them had attended a dual language immersion program, and now they didn’t know what to think. Sloane decided to observe the third-grade class where Matthew might be placed.

Sara Frye and Gabriella Garcia teach a lesson on probability to their third-grade class.

Sara is responsible for teaching third-grade content in English to students in the dual language program.

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Sara Frye hurried to gather the last of the manipulatives she needed before her class returned from P.E. She took a big gulp of coffee, long since cold, and mentally prepared for the upcoming math lesson. A parent would be observing, and Sara wanted to be sure she was on her toes.

The class was well into a unit on probability, and Sara was pleased that many of her students were able to use their new math vocabulary to describe the likelihood of an event occurring. She had planned many different activities to give students a chance to make predictions on future events: rolling dice, tossing coins, spinning colored spinners, and drawing colored blocks from a bag. The unit also gave students an opportunity to apply skills they had learned in earlier data analysis activities.

Even though the students’ ability to understand basic concepts of probability was developing slowly, Sara knew these simple informal explorations were important. The students were building a foundation for the more formal reasoning skills they would learn in middle school and beyond.

Read the list of words Sara’s class has created to describe the likelihood of a future event occurring below:

Sara worried though. Many of her students were English as second language learners, and some of them seemed to be struggling with the new math vocabulary. Her students spent half of their day learning in Spanish with her teaching partner Gabriella Garcia and the other half of the day in her class learning in English. Sara still had to make sure they mastered the math, science, and other content for Grade 3 though—the success of the program depended on it.

Learn more about the Dual Language Enrichment Program at Cameron Elementary School below:

Sara had not known what to expect when she was offered this teaching assignment two years ago. Not only did she not have experience teaching in an ESOL class, she didn’t even speak Spanish! Working with Gabriella had proven to be a blessing though. Gabriella had over fifteen years of experience in the classroom, and she helped Sara learn the ropes. Still, Sara couldn’t help but think that there was more that she could be doing to help her students master the third-grade content and a new language.

As the students filed back into the classroom, Sara introduced herself to Sloane Jeffries while the students gathered on the floor to begin the lesson.

Students review words that describe the probability that a future event will occur.

Raul and Robert work together to collect data.

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As the students began to work on their spinner and block experiments, Sara and Gabriella circulated through the room to offer help and encouragement. Sara often wondered how she would get through a math lesson now without Gabriella’s presence. Together they were able to provide so much more individualized attention to students.

Students collect data during their block and spinner experiments.

See samples of the data charts created by the students below: 

After the students finished compiling their data, the class gathered to discuss the results of the experiment. When one of her ESOL students faltered while trying to express his thoughts in English, she noticed that Sloane was intently watching the interaction. She wondered what Sloane might be thinking, but there was little time to worry if she was going to finish her lesson on time.

Sara and the students discuss the results of their block and spinner experiments.

As Sara gathered the materials for the final activity of the lesson, Gabriella raised her eyebrows at her with a quick “well, this should be interesting!” nod towards Sloane. When Sara and Gabriella were planning this lesson, they wanted a fun experiment that would interest the students and give them another opportunity to practice predicting the likelihood of an event happening. What would Mrs. Jeffries think?

Students make predictions and summarize the results of an experiment.

As the students shared their sentences describing what was likely, certain and impossible to happen with the pigs, Sara was pleased to see that many of them were starting to gain a better understanding of the terms. Some of them were still struggling with the concept of “certain,” but Sara had always found this to be the most difficult of the three distinctions for third graders.

Read the summary sentences written by two students on their exit slips below:

To close the lesson, Sara asked the students a series of informal assessment questions. As half of the students returned to Gabriella’s room, Sara reflected on the lesson. Overall, she felt it had been a success. They still had a ways to go before the students were ready to move on, but she was pleased with their excitement during the pig activity and with their progress overall. Sara smiled over at Sloane. The lesson had gone well and she felt confident that Sloane would be pleased.

Sloane reflects on her school observation.

Gabriella has years of experience teaching ESOL students at Cameron Elementary School.

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After Sloane’s observation, she shared her impressions of Cameron Elementary and Sara’s class with her husband. The school was bright, clean and well-organized, and the student-painted murals in the hallways were both cheerful and impressive. All of the teachers and administrators they met seemed like dedicated, conscientious professionals. The students seemed engaged and excited during the math lesson, and Sloane was impressed that they were tackling probability at such an early age. She couldn’t remember learning about it until at least high school!

The Jeffries had some concerns though. They studied the class schedule and Dual Language Enrichment Program information Sara had given Sloane, and they still wondered if Matthew would lose out if the pace of lessons had to be slowed down to accommodate learning in a non-native language. Sara had been very candid about answering Sloane’s questions when they had a chance to talk after class. The Jeffries were torn—where would Matthew be most likely to thrive?

See Sara Frye’s class schedule below: