In Pursuit of Equity for Multilingual Students in Mathematics: What Do Teachers Need Support In?

By Michelle Melani posted 28 days ago


In Pursuit of Equity for Multilingual Students in Mathemetics: What Do Teachers Need Support In?

by Amelia Q. Rivera and Samantha A. Marshall


As school bells ring across the country, classrooms are filled with children eager to learn. Unfortunately, not every student will have equitable opportunities to learn, particularly when students’ native ways of speaking don’t align with the language of instruction. Teacher professional development to effectively support multilingual students is rarely a priority, especially in math classrooms where common phrases like “math is a universal language,” oversimplify learning this content.

What happens to students whose languages are devalued in math classrooms? Too often, the beautiful native languages of multilingual speakers are suppressed and they start to see themselves as not good at math. Additionally, labels are frequently placed on students with linguistic variations, such as “English Language Learners” (ELL) or “English as a Second Language” (ESL), and these may further mark multilingual students as deficient in the school system’s eyes.

In our work, we have noticed that it’s not just students’ multilingual identities that matter for the way education can be inequitable for them. Biased language policies intersect with racism, ableism, and socioeconomic and sociopolitical systems to create unique situations, requiring unique approaches to equity. As researchers and educators, below we share our stories of witnessing multilingual students’ educational experiences, reflecting on how these shape our research and practice.

Ms. Rivera

In the early part of my teaching career, I worked at a school that had a high population of Black and Latinx students. Because of my own ethnoracial identity and because of my childhood experience in predominantly white classes, I preferred to work in schools that have higher populations of Black and Brown students. One story I can remember as a young educator was the “no Spanish rule.” Students were instructed to speak only English in classes. My heart did not feel well about it, but I did not have the academic language to put to it. The “no Spanish rule” was in opposition of what the school stood for (diversity) and in opposition to inclusion and equitable practices. In my home language I would say “they were the ops!” The policy was policing language practices in academic spaces, justified by “the teachers need to be able to understand and monitor student conversation.” I could not control the school, but I could control my classroom environment. We were learning languages together: Spanish, Black Language, French, and a sprinkle of “Academic English” to satisfy the curriculum criteria. Before the rule was dismantled, I learned so much about my own teaching practices as I was stretched to present and respond using multiple languages and exemplifying my own ancestral ethnoracial heritage as a proud Afro-Latinx, fluid in African American English, conditioned for “Standard English” and a novice Spanish speaker. We created a multilingual community that thrived on learning new things from each other, where power was leveled by language.

Dr. Marshall

I started teaching at what had been labeled the “poorest performing” high school in Oklahoma—a reflection of inequitable policies and practices. A majority of students were immigrants, and I was placed on the “sheltered” team, which meant that most of my students were newcomers to this country. However, I received very little support for teaching mathematics to multilingual students, and the support I did receive was really problematic. Workshops framed students’ languages as barriers to their learning math. I implemented what they were teaching me, but as I worked there, I started to see how insufficient this training was for helping me do a better job by my students. First, I noticed that helping students memorize vocabulary words was not helping them make sense of mathematical concepts. Then, I noticed that they were facing many more inequities than just what went on inside my classroom — mandated state testing and shady practices by administrators were also issues I needed to think about if I wanted to really address educational inequities for multilingual students.

In More than Multilingual: Investigating Teachers’ Learning to Support Multilingual Students through an Intersectional Lens, published in Volume 87, Issue 4, of The Educational Forum, we discuss how research in mathematics education might better address teacher learning about teaching multilingual students, offering insights from an intersectionality theory perspective. 

About Amelia Q. Rivera, MEd

Amelia Q. Rivera, MEd, is a passionate PhD student at North Carolina State University and a leading advocate for Educational Equity. She addresses power dynamics in language and actively combats anti-Black linguistic racism, aiming to expose and rectify discriminatory language practices. Her scholarly pursuits extend to pedagogy, focusing on translanguaging to foster inclusive teaching strategies.

 About Dr. Samantha A. Marshall

Dr. Samantha A. Marshall is an assistant professor in the Department of Teacher Education and Learning Sciences (TELS) at North Carolina State University. Dr. Marshall’s work lies at the intersection of teacher learning, justice-oriented mathematics education, and learning sciences. Motivated by the need to support teachers in learning anti-oppressive forms of education, her work seeks to design, investigate, and refine supports for teachers’ learning.

Amelia Rivera and Samantha Marshall wrote an article in the The Educational Forum, “More than Multilingual: Investigating Teachers’ Learning to Support Multilingual Students through an Intersectional Lens.” It, along with all issues of The Educational Forum are available at a discounted rate with your KDP membership. Subscribe to The Educational Forum now!

1 comment



24 days ago

Teachers need support in recognizing and valuing the linguistic diversity of multilingual students, developing culturally responsive instructional practices in mathematics, and advocating for policies that promote equity for all students regardless of their language backgrounds. Professional development should focus on dismantling biases and stereotypes that may hinder the academic success of multilingual learners.