Integrating Math and Literacy in Two Languages


After attending a conference in New Mexico about dual-language teaching, I returned to the classroom with a new understanding of what should be happening in elementary classrooms across the United States.  We should not be TEACHING SPANISH AND ENGLISH to kids.  We should be teaching IN Spanish and English, helping ALL students acquire two languages in elementary school.  There is a big difference between “teaching a second language” and “teaching in two languages.”  Some of the most important statements I have ever heard stuck with me from this conference:

  • “Monolingualism is the exception in the rest of the world, but it’s the norm in the United States.”
  • “If you can speak English and Spanish, you can communicate with 80% of people in the world.”
  • “Monolingualism is the illiteracy of the 21st century.”
  • “If standards are designed to make Americans more competitive in the 21st century, why is there no standard for biliteracy and bilingualism?”

This is exactly what our school is trying to do to help prepare our students for the ever-changing global community that they are growing up in.  It is amazing how fast children acquire understanding and vocabulary in a second language if they are given the opportunity.  We shouldn’t be teaching children a second language.  We should be allowing them to acquire the second language in the same way that they are acquiring the vocabulary and structure of their first language.

With all of this in mind, here’s an example of how that would look in a third grade classroom where about half of the students are first-language Spanish speakers.  When my students entered the room at the beginning of the day, they saw this graph hanging up on the board with directions to add a sticky dot to their favorite type of book before Morning Meeting.


(I allowed them to pick their top two favorites, if they couldn’t decide on just one favorite.)  During Morning Meeting, I explained that later today we would be finishing the graph, making observations about it, and then writing a paragraph to explain the graph to someone else.

During writing time later that morning, we made a list of observations about the graph.  I spoke in English and in Spanish during this time, but did not translate directly what I was saying in either language.  I fluidly moved between both and the students readily gave ideas for observations in both languages.  Whichever language they used for their ideas, I wrote on the board exactly what they said.


Students were then told to work together in pairs to write a topic sentence that tells what the whole graph is about and then add four detail sentences to complete the paragraph.  They had to write the topic sentence in red and the detail sentences in pencil.  This helps them show the separation between the main idea sentence and the sentences that support the main idea.  They were given a note pad to record the sentences for their paragraph.



When students had written a topic sentence and at least two detail sentences, we came together in a Share Circle to share ideas for the topic sentence.  I made a list of all topic sentences that students shared.  We then went through the list and talked about what makes a good main idea sentence.  The kids suggested that it should be a complete sentence.  We eliminated which ideas on the chart were NOT complete sentences.  One child suggested that those might be good as a title for the graph, but not as a topic sentence.  Another kid observed that one of the ideas wasn’t even about the graph, so we eliminated that one.  Finally, a student said that the topic sentence has to be about the WHOLE graph, not just one little part of it, so we eliminated that idea.  This left four possibilities.  I called on a student to pick one of the four options as our topic sentence for our class paragraph about the graph.

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I wrote the topic sentence in red, just as the students had done.  Next, I called on different partners to read one of their detail sentences.  I wrote those sentences in green.  When I had written four detail sentences on the board, I called on three different students to read the whole paragraph.  We discussed again how the main idea is in the first sentence in red and the detail sentences tell more about the main idea.

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The next step was for the kids to write a paragraph in their writing notebooks about the graph.  They could choose to use the paragraph that they had written with their partner, make up a completely new paragraph, or use a combination of some copied sentences and some new sentences.  As before, they had to write the topic sentence in red and the detail sentences in pencil.  We shared the paragraphs that the kids had written in a Share Circle after students were finished writing.

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The next day before Morning Meeting, the graph was hanging up on the board again with a new question: “What is missing from this graph?”  The students wrote ideas about what could be missing on sticky notes and stuck them to the graph.  During Morning Meeting, they shared the ideas they had about the missing parts on the graph.  We talked about which parts of a graph are essential and we added those to our graph.

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