Mainstream math has a lot to do with language.
Many people believe that math and language don't have much in common - that math should be easy for an Emergent Bilingual student because it's some kind of "universal language". Contrary to what Cady Heron would have you believe, the language we use to do mathematics varies greatly across languages and cultures, and that language is key to understanding and being able to create links between concepts in mathematics (Schleppegrell, 2007). While emergent bilingual students do face a variety of unique challenges in a mainstream math classroom, there are several things that a teacher (even one untrained in ESL practices) can do to make the learning experience better for the whole class.
Krashen's Language Acquisition in Mainstream Mathematics
Many of the rest of the challenges faced by emergent bilingual students can be explained within the framework of Stephen Krashen's hypotheses on language acquisition.
Krashen argues that meaningful input and output used in a natural setting to support the growth of "acquired" language is the most important and effective way to develop language skills and maintain them long-term. This is in direct opposition to much of the work that is done in math classrooms, which revolves around "learned" language skills like vocabulary in the mathematics register and grammatical patterns and conventions commonly seen in formal mathematical language. Researchers, educators, and mathematicians agree that one of the foremost goals of mathematics educators is to support students in transitioning from informal mathematical language into the formal (Mamokgethi & Adler, 2000), which requires a significant amount of focus on "learned" formal language.
Teachers know that instruction in mathematical language is important for all students, not just emergent bilingual students. But especially for those learners in your classroom, teaching mathematical language in a way that is meaningful and supports the "acquired" side of Krashen's langauage acquisition theory is of the utmost importance. Language and mathematics research has shown that teaching practices like revoicing student utterances using formal mathematical language is one of the most effective ways to encourage students to transition into the math register in their speaking (Mamokgethi & Adler, 2000), and this is a strategy that can easily be incorporated into existing classroom discourse in order to mimic "acquired" language learning as closely as possible. Another strategy teachers can use to accomplish this goal is by allowing students to begin their thinking in their home language and, once they cement the meaning of the concept, then transition into informal mathematical English and then further into formal math language.
The other barrier that students face frequently in math classrooms is a level of "math anxiety" that accompanies participation in the class. As any math learner (English speaking or not) will tell you, math is a discipline that faces a lot of stigma as being "hard" and students often dismiss their own abilities under the reasoning that they're "not a math person" or "bad" at math. These learner identities and preconceptions about the subject matter lead students to get nervous in math class, for fear of failure, and this anxiety is often worsened by classroom environments that don't encourage discourse, place too much emphasis on correct answers, and create expectations based around achievement rather than growth. These factors would be enough to make anyone nervous, but especially emergent bilingual students who already face increased barriers to accessing the content. According to Krashen's Affective Filter Hypothesis, students with high levels of anxiety can create a "mental block" that prevents them from processing input properly and acquiring language skills from it. This creates a significant challenge to emergent bilingual students in mainstream math classes. If just the fact of being in the class is enough to create problems with understanding, a teacher needs to work hard to ensure that these barriers can be overcome.
Breaking down students' Affective Filters is a practice that requires teachers to address not just individual learners or their instructional practice, but the entire culture of the classroom. Something that educators can do to combat this, and that I plan to do in my classroom, is to put emphasis on developing positive classroom norms and expectations that alleviate some of the anxiety related to learning. Some of these are easy to do, like emphasizing that learning is about making connections and not just about final answers, and allowing students time and opportunities to work with peers and collaborate in their learning efforts. Teachers can also implement explicit instruction on types of learning and fixed vs growth mindsets for intelligence. If students can be taught to view themselves as having the ability to grow and learn, and to view their mistakes as valuable steps on the way to knowledge instead of as detrimental things that are to be avoided; this could help to lower their affective filters and contribute to a productive and positive learning environment.
Discrepancies between federal requirements and teacher training
Emergent bilingual students have a right to accommodations that ensure them access to the same quality of education that their native English-speaking peers receive. This right was guaranteed by the Supreme Court ruling of Lau v Nichols in 1974 and expanded upon by Castaneda v Pickard, which provided criterion through which programs for emergent bilingual students should be assessed. These landmark cases made great strides in establishing the educational rights of emergent bilingual students but their implementation, especially in mainstream classrooms, has fallen short of expectations. Currently, federal requirements only state that mainstream teachers must receive professional development training if they are to be teaching to emergent bilingual students in their classroom. In 30 states this federal minimum is the only ESL requirement for mainstream teachers, and only 4 states require any level of certification or formal training in ESL practices to obtain a teaching license. For these reasons, often teachers' preparedness to meet the needs of emergent bilingual students is one of the most significant barriers faced in the mainstream math classroom.
One of the best ways in which a mainstream teacher can prepare themselves to support emergent bilingual students in their classroom is to acquire some training or certification in ESL practices. Most district or state level departments of education will offer training in instructional frameworks such as SIOP, which give teachers great tools to work with emergent bilingual learners.