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About Digital Design for English Language Learners

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Digital Design for English Language Learners (or Digital Design Workshop) was an out-of-school time pilot program designed to address the mathematics and language literacy needs of the fastest growing population of students in the United States. In partnership with a neighborhood middle school in Corona, Queens, NYSCI staff, and two public school teachers developed and tested instructional activities in an after-school setting and provided coaching for other middle school mathematics and English Language Learner teachers. The activities centered on the use of NYSCI’s Noticing Tools™, a suite of apps that invite learners to touch, see and use mathematics to design personalized digital artifacts. Using a multimodal approach, the program invited English Language Learners to create digital design projects that connect to their lives and cultures, and to engage in hands-on, full body activities where they acted out, discussed, experimented with and represented the mathematical ideas behind their designs.

Based on lessons learned from this well-documented work, NYSCI created the online Digital Design for English Language Learners Math and Language Resource Guide. The guide features supplemental activities, teaching strategies and sample projects that formal and informal educators and their students can use to support “mathematics talk” and language literacy, areas deemed critical for English Language Learners’ mathematics learning.

Featured in this resource guide are workshop sessions that were piloted twice over the course of a week in an after-school setting, with each activity transitioning to the next, totaling 25 hours of programming. Due to the modular nature of each activity, the workshops can be implemented separately to fit a variety of educational settings and pacing preferences. Activities are separated into three parts: Getting Started, Going Deeper, and in-app Digital Design. Also featured are case studies providing portraits of how six different English Language Learners experienced the activities and the gains they made in participating.

Why Noticing Tools™ for English Language Learners?

English Language Learners (ELLs) are confronted with dual challenges: learning both a new language and core academic content, with its own specialized vocabulary. Leading research suggests that some of the best instruction for ELL students provides diverse opportunities for speaking, listening, reading and writing while encouraging them to take risks, construct meaning, and seek reinterpretations of knowledge in different contexts. They also benefit from thematically integrated projects that promote higher order thinking, cooperative learning, and high-quality exchanges between teachers and students. NYSCI’s Noticing Tools™, with their emphasis on core mathematics and science content, visual design projects, and storytelling, are well suited for addressing these needs and provide a basis for bringing many of these strategies together for teachers and ELL students.

Creating a Space / Setting the Tone

One of the goals of this project was to design an environment where English Language Learner students would feel accepted yet challenged, free to learn, and excited to have fun. Each NYSCI collaborator was thoughtful, caring and considerate, and had prior experience with this community of learners.

A language-rich environment was created to allow for multiple ways in which students (proficient in English or not) would be able to communicate their mathematical thinking. Led by the experience of two seasoned instructors (one a bilingual educator and one a TESOL-certified educator), opportunities were embedded into each experience (i.e. icebreakers, exploration, digital and analog activities) for conversation, asking questions, and showing off and sharing work. Models, visual representations, pictures, manipulatives and problems that connected to students’ lives were bridges that helped students grasp core content ideas while deepening their language skills.

Youth Involvement

This project recruited high school and college students as facilitators to help set the tone of the workshop and to create an inviting and accessible space for English Language Learners. Many of the youth facilitators spoke a language other than English and grew up with similar experiences to the students as newcomers to the United States. Youth facilitators assisted with translations and encouraged students throughout the workshop, emotionally supporting them.

At the beginning of each day (and often once more after lunch), our youth facilitators led daily icebreakers to set a tone for both having fun and learning. For students who came in extremely cautious, this gave them an easy point of entry into the program. For the instructors and youth facilitators, it provided a way to get to know the different personalities and general levels of English proficiency.

In addition, the youth facilitators’ involvement lowered the student: teacher ratio, providing students with more support and offering opportunities to have someone else speak their native language. To support successful youth involvement, training was focused on the following key points:

  • Give youth facilitators time to familiarize themselves with the Noticing Tools™.
  • Provide a clear idea of their role as a facilitator: being a helpful hand and ear for the students and providing technical support, but not teaching students mathematics.
  • Allow them to practice open-ended or probing questioning techniques. For example, asking questions such as “Why did you choose to do that?” “Why do you like that color?” As one youth facilitator described her overall approach: “[Act] like you don’t know what’s going on … even if it’s the most obvious thing, you [want to] take a step back and let them tell you what they’re doing, instead of you telling them what to do.”
Family Celebration

The workshop acknowledged that English Language Learners’ parents are often left out of being a part of their children’s education and learning journey and that students need the most important people in their life to be a part of their learning experience. As the last portion of the workshop, parents and family members were welcomed to join a family celebration, where the students showcased their work in final presentations and were given a certificate for their hard work. Seeing their children speak and even present in front of others in English comes as a surprise for some parents, many having moved from their native country to the United States in the past year. The parents of our workshop sessions were incredibly proud of how diligently the students worked and impressed by the work they showed off. After seeing her sons present in English, one mother thanked the facilitators: “I want to thank all the teachers that have taught new things to my [sons] and had patience more than anything with Alejandro. He arrived six months ago and it’s really difficult for him … ”


Assessments were conducted in a three-pronged approach: pre-assessments as the students entered, presentations of their work throughout, and post-assessments on the final day of the workshop.

Pre-Assessment and Post-Assessment

The pre- and post-assessments for each session of the workshop consisted of two exercises. One exercise assessed the students’ prior knowledge of fractional mathematics, while the second focused on the students’ perceptions of mathematics.

The pre- and post-assessments were compared for changes in understanding of fractional parts as well as any changes in students’ perceptions of their relationships with mathematics.


Throughout the workshops, students presented their work to the class. To assist the students in presenting, sentence frames were posted to guide the students in what they were expected to talk about. In addition to this basic guidance, the instructors encouraged them to explain their mathematical thinking in regards to their project, using the apps’ visualization tools to show translation paths, angles, and fractional equations. These presentations served as ongoing assessments of the students’ progress in understanding mathematical concepts covered by the workshop throughout the week, as well as their progress in presenting in English and their confidence in speaking.

Made possible by the generous support of the Verizon Foundation.