Due to the increasing diversity of mathematics classrooms today, teachers need guidance on how to support English Learners (ELs) in mathematics classes in a way that situates language learning within mathematical activity. Unfortunately, neither mathematics education research nor EL education research is sure how to navigate the complexity of teaching ELs mathematics while supporting both their language development and their mathematical development through their participation in mathematical activity. This study examined ELs' participation in mathematical Discourse, investigating both the mathematical purposes ELs accomplished by using multiple symbol systems, and the way ELs used non-English language (NEL) symbol systems to support their spoken English. The participants were college-aged ELs beginning their studies at the English Learning Center at an American university. The students all had fluency with basic conversational English, and had many different levels of mathematical experience. I identified five categories of purposes in which ELs engaged during mathematical Discourse. I also developed the Replace Augment Learn (RAL) framework that describes how ELs used NEL symbol systems to make up for their decreased English literacy and facilitate their participation in mathematical Discourse. Analysis of the data suggests ELs' use of NEL symbol systems (1) played a significant role in achieving many of the purposes associated with mathematical Discourse, and (2) opened up a space for effective language acquisition. These findings indicate that authentic mathematical activity can be a productive site for language development, and that ELs with basic conversational English and literacy with a variety of symbol systems can participate meaningfully in mathematical Discourse.



College and Department

Physical and Mathematical Sciences; Mathematics Education



Date Submitted


Document Type





mathematical Discourse, vocabulary acquisition, English Learner, symbol systems, mathematical activity, literacy