Thursday, May 3, 2012

Using the CAN DO Descriptors in a High School Math Class

WIDA’s CAN DO Descriptors are one of my all-time favorite documents to share – especially with mainstream teachers.   They are a wonderful resource for understanding the language acquisition process and brainstorming ideas for differentiating classroom instruction and assessment.  Some of you know that I teach a graduate course on assessment of ELLs.  Recently I asked my students (in-service teachers pursuing their ESL or bilingual endorsements in Illinois) to choose one ELL that they currently teach.  Then I asked them to list the CAN DO Descriptors that correlate to that student’s current English language proficiency (ELP) level.  Lastly, I asked them to list ways they could differentiate their instruction and classroom assessments to better align with that student’s level of ELP. 

For some, this was the first time they thought about how to differentiate their classroom instruction or classroom assessments according to levels of language proficiency.  It was an eye-opening experience.  Typically it makes sense to start the year by matching instruction and assessment to the students’ current ELP levels.  Then, as the year progresses, teachers can challenge students to work towards descriptors at the next level of language proficiency. This week I’ll share some of Katherine’s ideas for her high school math class. In coming weeks, I’ll share others’ ideas for high school social studies, the elementary grades and preschool.  

Katherine Papagiannis – Math Teacher

Student A is a freshman in high school.  The following level 2 CAN DO Descriptors for grades 9-12 are what I have seen Student A show that he is able to do:
Listening - Sequence visuals according to oral directions
- Ask WH-questions to clarify meaning
- Compare content related material in visuals and graphics 
- Make content-related lists of words, phrases, or expressions

 I had the students create models of various parabolas in order to display the shift of the vertex when the function changes.  An activity that I could add in order to further assist Student A improve his vocabulary and his understanding of parabolas while using his CAN DO listening skill (sequence visuals according to oral directions) is a sort of various graphs that I tell students to order based on verbal directions that I give.  Included in this activity I can have the students use another one of his strengths in reading (compare content related material in visuals and graphics), and they can complete a card sort and match the graphs with a table and function rule in vertex form…[I]n order to address Student A’s writing CAN DO strength (make content-related lists of words, phrases, or expressions) I should have them create a list of content-related words, phrases or expressions.  We kept a dictionary for some of the previous chapters but did not require students to add words from this chapter.  It is imperative that we do.  This dictionary has the students list the term, an example of how we’ve been using the term in class (usually an algebraic representation of the term) and then a picture / graph of the term… We have not done this but we can also have a section in our dictionary where students relate what we have learned to their language or how they studied this topic in their country, if they have seen the topic before… people think that math is a universal language but in some countries there are slight differences.  Even though the concepts are the same, since they may look different students may become confused.  Finally, while the students are creating their dictionaries by adding new terms, I can give them time to ask questions in order to help them really understand the term in order to most accurately describe it in their own words.  This will address Student A’s speaking CAN DO skill (ask WH-questions to clarify meaning). 

Special thanks to Katherine for sharing these great ideas!

More on the language of math here.
For more ideas on using the CAN DO Descriptors, click here and here.
Written by: Tammy King


  1. What a great example of activating all four language domains in the process of learning! Thank you for keeping this blog so active.

  2. This makes learning more meaningful to students since it's more practical.

  3. That is a more practical way of teaching