Sarah Roberts, assistant professor in curriculum and instruction, chats with students.
Sarah Roberts, assistant professor in curriculum and instruction, chats with students.

Roberts receives Spencer Foundation grant to improve math learning for ELL students

Aside from love, math is supposed to be the universal language. But what about students who are learning math and English at the same time? Sarah Roberts, assistant professor in curriculum and instruction, received a $39,000 grant from the Spencer Foundation to study the traits of exemplary secondary math instructors of students who are English language learners (ELLs). From her study, Roberts hopes to discover the tools successful teachers use to reach their middle school math students.

While working on her doctorate at the University of Colorado at Boulder, Roberts observed teachers of secondary math with an established ELL population. The idea for her grant work started there. Roberts hopes that by videotaping class sessions, she'll be able to tease out the elements of what makes teachers of English and math most effective.

"One of the problems I'm seeing, is that teachers feel lost – you can read a book about how to approach ELLs in a math classroom, but the best solution would be to talk to other teachers who are already effective with ELL students and learn their strategies,"  said Roberts. "I want to turn it around. I want to provide tools to math teachers that will allow them to reach those students." 

In keeping with the Spencer Foundation's mission of supporting research that cultivates knowledge and new ideas about education, Roberts sees the study as an opportunity to add to the academic literature and provide a vehicle to promote professional development with teachers.

In addition to observation, Roberts hopes that by watching video of their classes, teachers are given a reflective period and can comment on why they choose certain pedagogical techniques – not only to think about their own practice but also to learn from each other.

From her work as a graduate student, Roberts observed careful use of purposeful language as a key element.

"Active communication is key in the classroom – all of the students were involved. In this way the teacher provided a high quality math lesson regardless of language ability,"  Roberts said. She also points to cultural and linguistic sensitivity as important elements secondary math instructors need to develop.

Roberts is excited about the opportunity to observe outstanding teachers in action, and plans to incorporate the video into her classes with curriculum and instruction students at Iowa State University.

"It's not enough anymore just to speak Spanish,"  Roberts said. "In our study classrooms, there'll be six or seven different languages spoken. Knowledge about what makes mathematics teaching for ELLs exemplary is becoming more and more of a necessity." 

Roberts will begin her work in the spring, and looks forward to the dialog about the video footage among the secondary math teachers. She says, "It's important to get people thinking. I want to develop this narrative to support teachers and students." 

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