• by Juanita C. García, Ph.D., and Rosana Rodríguez, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • April 2015 •

To make sure that bilingual/bicultural students have the skills they need to be college- and career-ready, success in algebra matters. All too often, however, teachers of young children do not have the resources they need to know how to integrate language learning and mathematical literacy.

Teachers can inspire interest and concrete skills in mathematics while simultaneously building language proficiency. The ability to identify, describe and foster algebraic reasoning in the early grades through language can help promote STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) and foster skills in algebra specifically.

Algebra is not just computation with variables that begin with whole numbers, then fractions, then decimals. Students should be able to create equations that describe numerical relationships, reason abstractly, practice solving problems in more than one way, and justify and communicate their thinking.

Children as early as kindergarten benefit from practicing the skills and building comprehension and knowledge that lead to mastery in algebra. Because of their innate inquisitiveness, young children are natural-born scientists and mathematicians. Inherent in children are curiosity, creativity, collaboration and critical thinking-concepts that are at the heart of STEM (Chesloff, 2013). Highly effective teachers of English learners play a vital role in nurturing these natural behaviors for STEM learning that children bring.

El Collar de Margarita ~ Margarita’s Necklace is one of a number of stories that comprise IDRA’s comprehensive Semillitas de aprendizaje, bilingual supplemental early childhood materials based on the art of storytelling and story reading. (see Page 7) This culturally-relevant story entices children to learn to create different patterns, similar to the protagonist in this charming story who comes from a family of artisans. In her home, the family members work the chaquira, the fine art of intricate beadwork used to create lovely necklaces, bracelets and rings. Margarita learns how to work with patterns and begins to craft a marvelous necklace.

The story inspires children to create their own patterns. It can be used effectively by teachers as a springboard to encourage children to explore and analyze patterns, count, and make predictions that are essential skills in developing math literacy, thereby increasing their ability to identify, describe and foster algebraic reasoning in the early elementary grades.

Describing and understanding patterns, numbers and operations also can contribute greatly to language development. And by introducing the mathematical concepts of patterns and predictions through culturally-relevant children’s stories, teachers can facilitate a connection with content. This vital connection between language and mathematics builds on children’s knowledge and provides additional opportunities to think in particular ways that result from analyzing relationships between quantities, noticing structures, studying change, generalizing and analyzing patterns, and learning to recognize and generate predictions, and form mathematical equations and algebraic rules.

Stories that are reflective of history, language and culture can be powerful stimulators to set the stage that excites STEM interest. Additionally, this approach can support early learners in sharing values, introducing new ideas and vocabulary, and catalyzing children to learn more about mathematics in the world around them.

Through interactive and engaging STEM learning experiences, children develop mathematical concepts through and with language. This essential foundation helps students construct a concrete understanding of key concepts in mathematics, allowing for future learning of more abstract ideas and more advanced algebraic thinking.

Using the Semillitas de aprendizaje culturally-relevant bilingual children’s stories can support exploration of key math processes, such as recognizing, describing, extending and translating patterns that encourage children to think more globally and algebraically.

Why Algebra Matters

Algebra is recognized and often called the “gatekeeper” subject for college and career readiness. It is used across professions ranging from electricians to architects to computer scientists. It is increasingly a path to success in our globally competitive economy. When children make the transition from concrete arithmetic to the symbolic language of algebra, they develop abstract reasoning skills necessary to excel in math and science.

Juanita Copley writes: “Mathematics is the science and language of patterns. Thinking about patterns helps children make sense of mathematics. They learn that mathematics is not a set of unrelated facts and procedures; instead, recognizing and working with patterns helps young children predict what will happen, talk about relationships, and see connections between mathematics concepts and their world.” (2000)

What Teachers Can Do

Highly effective teachers of English learners know the importance of math literacy and learn how to integrate language learning across disciplines. They understand the importance of fostering interest in STEM fields and increasing minority representation in these critical fields that will play an expanding role in our nation’s workforce and economy.

Excellent teachers of English learners encourage language and literacy, encourage early interest and success in math and language, inspire critical thinking skills/deeper learning, and develop mathematics inquiry and proficiency. They are familiar with and integrate the five strands of mathematical proficiency adopted by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics:

  • conceptual understanding – the big picture of learning mathematics where concepts are connected to previous math learning;
  • procedural fluency – the step-by-step calculations of solving problems;
  • strategic competence – solving a problem in more than one way;
  • adaptive reasoning – reflecting, justifying and communicating thinking; and
  • productive disposition – the relevance and value of mathematics.

These five strands are interconnected and must all work together for mathematical proficiency.

Unfortunately, in many classrooms, step-by-step calculations or procedural fluency take a dominant and exclusive role in math instruction, limiting potential for student learning. But additional resources and strategies have been developed, such as those through IDRA’s Math Smart! professional development for teachers of English language learners. Grounded in scientifically-based and best-practices research in mathematics teaching and English learning, IDRA’s Math Smart! model focuses on increasing mathematical proficiency for all students while deepening teacher content knowledge. At the core is the understanding that all children have an innate, natural sense of mathematics – which is a shift away from a traditionally deficit view to a valuing and asset perspective of students’ knowledge and potential. Combining these Math Smart! best-practices approaches with IDRA’s Semillitas de aprendizaje stories can be a powerful combination in promoting critical thinking and connecting language learning to content areas.

Effective teachers of English learners who are knowledgeable in language and mathematical proficiency and who know how to effectively use tools to inspire STEM through the use of culturally-relevant educational supports can open doors to more equity, access and excellence in education for all students.


Chesloff, J.D. “STEM Education Must Start in Early Childhood,” Education Week (2013).

Copley, J. V. The Young Child and Mathematics (Washington, D.C.: National Association for the Education of Young Children, 2000).

National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM). Principles and Standards for School Mathematics (Reston, Va.: NCTM, 2000).

Juanita C. García, Ph.D., is an IDRA consultant. Rosana Rodríguez, Ph.D., is an IDRA consultant. Comments and questions may be directed to IDRA via email at feedback@idra.org.

[©2015, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the April 2015 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]