13 – Accessing Academic Language in Math and Science for Refugee Learners

Chrystal Polanik


As English as Additional Language (EAL) teachers, “We must work to create classrooms where there is a discourse of possibility and hope…where we are much more attentive to using the text of students’ lives in our work” (Helmer & Eddy, 2012, p. 59) The direction and scope of the discourse in this essay is derived from personal EAL classroom teaching experiences and my work to support EAL refugee learners in mainstream math and science content classrooms. Ideas, approaches, and methods presented are supported with evidence and research from course content and readings.

Refugees are a vulnerable group of English Language Learners (ELLs) who view education as an important means to obtaining better employment and life opportunities. Many refugees arrive with well-established oral communication skills in L1 but are often frustrated when language becomes a barrier to everyday communication and academic achievement in English language school systems.  Age-time constraints place further stress and anxiety on refugee ELLs. By attempting to bridge the achievement gap in a shorter time span with accelerated academic language acquisition, refugee ELL performance is often compromised.

The educational aim of this paper is to examine how English Language Teachers (ELTs) can approach instruction to support refugees in academically challenging learning contexts, specifically math and science, in order to achieve curricular outcomes that facilitate refugee academic success and open doors to post secondary education or employment. Information presented in the paper will assist ELTs currently working in math and science teaching contexts to achieve the following: (a) consider the effectiveness of existing EAL practices, supports, and adaptations; (b) determine if academic language acquisition is occurring; and (c) evaluate whether assessment practices appropriately reflect refugee ELL academic language learning in the content areas of math and science.


A current issue in English as an Additional Language (EAL) education today centers around finding an approach to instruction that facilitates access to academic language and learning for secondary English Language Learners (ELLs) and yields academic success.  Teenage refugee learners in particular are a vulnerable group at risk of not completing traditional academic programs due to interrupted or little to no formal education in their first language (L1), low or no literacy skills in L1 or English, and very little knowledge in academic content-areas (Freeman, 2002 as cited in Helmer & Eddy, 2012, p.76) Typically, teenage refugees receive one year of intensive EAL instruction within secondary schools, followed by a gradual integration into mainstream content classrooms with continued EAL supports. The dilemma facing ELTs today involves the early integration of refugee ELLs into mainstream classrooms, well before the minimum five to seven years required to reach CALP “intermediate fluency,” (Helmer & Eddy, 2012, p.74) and how to approach academic language and learning to bridge the achievement gap. This essay will illustrate why identification and explicit instruction of academic language, targeted teaching and implementation of instructional strategies, and selection of supports, adaptations, and assessments that facilitate academic language learning and comprehension are all critical to teenage refugee learners’ academic achievement in the subject areas of math and science.

Refugee learners require intensive EAL support in learning communicative language (Basic Interpersonal Communicative Skills) and explicit instruction and EAL supports in academic language (Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency) learning.  “CALP is the language of academia and textbooks (taking) a minimum of five years to develop an intermediate fluency” (Helmer & Eddy, 2012 p. 74). The complexity of academic language learning for refugee learners often occurs in accelerated and cognitively challenging academic learning contexts. In order to bridge the achievement gap, the ELT must develop and implement “approaches and materials that will help them (ELLs) catch up to and compete with mainstream students” (Helmer & Eddy, 2012, p.76) within a considerably shorter time frame than initially predicted.

Refugee learners repeatedly struggle in the subject areas of math and science due to the specialized academic language found in each of these subjects. EAL teachers must identify and analyze the academic language found in math and science texts that are problematic for ELLs, break it down into manageable language components, and explicitly teach these language points for ELL academic language learning and acquisition to occur. Academic textbooks use formal language that is not normally encountered in daily usage. For example, the usage of passive verbs in academic texts is used to describe processes or focus on results or outcomes and is problematic for second language learners (L2Ls) still mastering the active voice (Coelho, 2012, p.242). Linking words and phrases that aid in organizing ideas is another language point that requires explicit teaching, such as: Sequence (e.g. first, next, then), cause and effect (e.g. because, as a result of), and concession (e.g. although, in spite of) (Coelho, 2012, p.242).

Misconceptions around mathematics include that math deals with numbers and is universal across languages and cultures, leading to the assumption that L2Ls are able to acquire mathematical learning relatively quickly and with minimal difficulty. Current mathematic textbooks are language-comprehension based. Mathematics has its own unique language, which causes problems for refugee L2Ls still acquiring basic everyday vocabulary. Mathematical vocabulary has three categories, all of which are necessary to understand and do math. Vocabulary sub-groups are:  a) specific technical mathematical terms (e.g. quadrilateral); b) technical terms with unrelated every day meanings (e.g. volume, product); and c) math words taken from everyday meanings (e.g. words like similar and face) (Coelho, 2012, p.242). The ELT now must explicitly teach vocabulary on three different levels, in addition to inferring meaning of everyday words that take on new meaning in a mathematical context. This is very confusing and frustrating for refugee learners, as another layer of language learning is added, causing increased anxiety around completing homework and writing exams.

Given that math requires problem solving skills, refugee learners benefit from explicit modeling and scaffolding that demonstrates how to approach solving math problems.  Refugee learners (and many other ELLs) find it difficult to decode math problems and decide which information is required and which details are extraneous. Interchanging numerals and written words of numbers within the same problem further compound the L2Ls confusion. Refugee learners further struggle with symbols and the everyday function words and vocabulary that replace these symbols (e.g. +, plus, sum, and) (Jarrett, 1999). Depending on the country, some symbols may represent different functions or meaning, further complicating comprehension (Jarrett, 1999).

Science presents its own unique academic challenges. ELTs must first identify the key topics and terms, and then make decisions about the approaches to be used to help refugee learners access the academic language within this content area. For example, challenges in science language may include “use of abstract nouns for processes (condensation), passive verbs, and condensed expressions (organisms in water)” (Coelho, 2012, p.263). Science also has its own unique vocabulary and use of words that have similar everyday meaning requiring intensive vocabulary instruction. In addition, science uses the inquiry and scientific methods.  “Students who are new to the study of science may need to begin with explicit instruction and progress to more exploratory learning, gradually developing independent-learning skills” (Jarrett, 1999).Therefore, ELTs need to identify and plan refugee L2L instruction for the specific ways language is used in math and science content and curricula (Coelho, 2012, p.263).

Once problematic academic language elements are identified, the ELT must then select and implement instructional strategies to facilitate refugee ELLs’ academic language acquisition and learning. “The processes involved in doing school work are seldom described explicitly and are usually learned over an extended period.” (Helmer & Eddy, 2012, p. 59). Refugee learners arrive with little or no experience with consistent regular schooling, and in addition to learning a new language must also acquire a new way of learning. When selecting instructional strategies, the ELT must address: a) identified problematic academic language elements (e.g. grammatical structures – passive verbs, abstract nouns, vocabulary); b) reading strategies that facilitate comprehension of academic language and texts (e.g.) skimming, scanning, summarizing, main idea); c) book literacy (e.g. textbook features and how to use them – table of contents, glossary, index, headings, sub-headings, diagrams, maps, labels, tables, graphs, photos, text boxes, font features – italics, bold); d) writing and writing strategies specific to the content area studied (e.g. math and science – scientific method, problem solving, how to write a lab experiment, compare/contrast, describe, analyze, identify, note taking, annotation) and; e) study skills. These are all skills that native speaking peers have been developing cumulatively in each grade level over an extended period of time. However, refugee learners must acquire these skills in cognitively demanding learning contexts at an accelerated rate. The learning curve for these skills and the amount of language required may be overwhelming for refugee learners, creating anxiety and mental exhaustion. As a result, a flight or fight response is usually induced resulting in absenteeism, failure to submit assignments, lack of motivation, and in some cases dropping out.

Finally, the ELT must examine and provide EAL supports, adaptations, and assessments that complement instructional strategies in accessing the academic language in the content areas of mathematics and science for refugee learner comprehension and academic learning. Different approaches and intensive EAL supports are required to assist refugee learners in meeting academic success due to the heavy cognitive, language, and content demands. Some examples of effective supports include: EAL tutorials, use of Educational Assistants (EAs), graphic organizers, visuals, technology, manipulatives, physical gestures, and scaffolding. Scaffolding is a particularly important support in assisting refugee learners in academic achievement as it models, guides, and breaks down learning into manageable chunks and achievable tasks. The “Scaffolding in the Quadrants” chart on page 294 in Chapter 13 of “Planning Instruction and Assessment” by Elizabeth Coelho (2016) provides an excellent scaffold framework for ELL differentiated instruction.

With regard to adaptations, “specialist language teachers need to collaborate with their colleagues, sharing strategies and resources that can be used to adapt the curriculum in the mainstream classroom” (Coelho, 2016, p.293). Adaptations may include: a) cooperative learning, pair or small group work; b) thematic instruction around key concepts or big ideas; c) adapting activities and discussions that center content around authentic real-world situations and examples that can access ELLs’ prior knowledge and experiences; d) rephrasing problems or ideas in their own words; and e) incorporating L1 where possible (Coelho, 2016). Kang, Pham, and Latham conclude, “When students are allowed to use their home language in the classroom, their academic performance as well as English-language development often improves” (as cited in Jarrett, 1999).

In terms of assessment and evaluation, teachers must carefully examine their assessment practices and consider adaptations to assist refugee learners in achieving academic success.  Curriculum outcomes and tasks are designed for native English speakers and may require adaptation for refugee learners who “have not had opportunities to develop the same knowledge and skills as their peers who have been immersed in the curriculum throughout their years of schooling” (Coelho, 2016, p.295). Coelho states that, “Adaptations may include revising outcomes, reducing the number of outcomes, and substituting alternative outcomes that are more appropriate” (Coelho, 2016, p.295). The important idea is to ensure that attainable learning is the focus of the assessment. Refugee learners require alternative assessment strategies to demonstrate learning, such as: a) reducing the language requirement (giving oral exams, demonstrate knowledge visually, focus on content and meaning); b) provide opportunities for practice and feedback; c) create performance-based tasks; d) portfolio assessment; e) provide think time and dictionaries; and f) use a team approach (Coelho, 2016, pp.298-301).

Academic language learning is complex and not only refugees, but all L2L students, would greatly benefit from targeted and explicit instruction, relevant instructional strategies, as well as supports, adaptations, and assessments in mathematics and science that purposefully focus on attainable learning outcomes for refugee ELL academic success.  Working collaboratively as a team, classroom teachers and EAL specialists can a) diagnose and specifically target problematic language, content, and curricular outcomes; b) tailor instructional strategies for refugee ELL language and academic learning goals; c) provide the appropriate scaffolding and supports that facilitate academic success; and d) work towards developing and adapting curricular outcomes that are attainable and reflective of refugee L2L language needs. In conclusion, adaptations that incorporate collaborative learning, inclusion of first languages of refugee learners, and authentic contexts that draw out refugee learners’ schema and experiences, can facilitate learning and language growth in the content areas.

In personal praxis, the evidence and research presented in this paper has relevance to my work as a high school EAL educator. I will be able to apply my learning to the development of a hybrid non-credit EAL tutorial class at my school. This EAL tutorial class is being designed to provide dedicated EAL and content support simultaneously to immigrant and refugee L2Ls in mathematics and science. This is the first time that a combined math and science non-credit EAL tutorial will be offered in this high school. It is also the first time that an EAL teacher and content classroom teacher will collaborate and co-teach L2Ls together. The tutorial will be broken into three peer study groups that rotate between: (a) the EAL teacher focusing on language components and instructional strategies; (b) the content teacher working on teaching and reinforcing concepts and learning outcomes; and (c) an Educational Assistant providing tutorial support for content learning. Within this context, the goal is for the EAL specialist and the classroom teacher to work together to find areas within the course content that allow for adaptation and incorporation of explicit teaching of academic language, instructional strategies, supports, adaptations, and assessment. The classroom teacher currently practices culturally responsive teaching, has experience working with immigrant and refugee learners, and already incorporates many instructional strategies, supports and adaptations into lesson plans. Some examples of alternative assessment practices already in use include provision of extra time for assignments and exams, alternate ways of demonstrating knowledge, visuals, and portfolios. An area to examine is assignments and summative assessments for heavy language usage which cause confusion for L2Ls and not knowing what is being asked or what expectation is required. The end goal is clear evidence of increased L2L academic achievement in math and science for refugee learners in high school.



Coelho, E. (2016). Chapter 13: Planning instruction and assessment. In Adding English. A guide to teaching in multilingual classrooms (2nd ed.) (pp. 280 – 311).  Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press.

Coelho, E. (2012). Language and learning in multilingual classrooms. A practical approach. North York, ON: Multilingual Matters.

Helmer, S., & Eddy, C. (2012). Look at me when I talk to you. EAL Learners in non-EAL classrooms. Don Mills, ON: Pippin Publishing Company.

Jarrett, D. (1999). The inclusive classroom. Teaching mathematics and science to English language learners. It’s just good teaching. Retrieved from https://educationnorthwest.org/sites/default/files/11.99.pdf




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