Are You Using this Protocol to Engage Multilingual Learners in Math?

Gone are the days when we talked about math as a “universal language” and math assignments were merely columns of problems needing to be solved. Now, math classes are filled with opportunities for rich language use, and math can provide a very concrete way for multilingual learners (MLs) to use and develop academic language. During math class, students are expected to use language in a variety of ways, such as generalizing about mathematical principles using technical language, explaining their thinking, agreeing and disagreeing with peers, and breaking down complex word problems. There are many instructional strategies that teachers can use to support MLs in acquiring the academic language of math and in understanding and engaging with mathematical concepts. I will focus on one math protocol for multilingual learners in this article.

In this article, I will share how a strategy called the Three Read Protocol can be scaffolded to support MLs’ understanding of math word problems and support academic language development. I’ll explain what the Three Read Protocol is, why it is a great strategy to use with MLs, how it can be scaffolded to use with MLs, and how to get started using this practice.

What is the Three Read Protocol?

The Three Read Protocol is a learning strategy that all students can use to approach math word problems¹. The protocol provides students with an opportunity to break down a word problem by reading the problem for different pieces of information. While there are slightly different approaches to this strategy, the key idea is that students read first to understand what is happening in the problem (the story), next to understand the math (what the numbers represent), and finally to make a plan to solve the problem². Essential to this protocol is the opportunity for students to discuss their ideas with a peer or group of peers during each step.  

Why can this strategy benefit MLs?

There are many reasons why MLs might find word problems challenging (beyond the math required by the problem), including unknown vocabulary, assumed background knowledge, specific cultural references, and complex sentence structures within the problem³. This protocol gives students a way to approach word problems that might have new vocabulary or be framed around unfamiliar contexts. It provides a structure and a reason for students to read a word problem multiple times in order to determine what the problem is asking. This protocol is especially beneficial to MLs because of the opportunities for productive talk that occur during this activity.

What scaffolds might MLs need to effectively engage with the Three Read Protocol?

In order to support MLs in making the most of this strategy, it will be important to provide specific scaffolds during each step. Some of the scaffolds that we recommend include: 

•  Reading the problem aloud and having students choral read the problem

•  Providing visual supports to assist with understanding of key vocabulary or the context for the problem

•  Developing a graphic organizer to guide students through the three steps

•  Sharing and modeling the use of sentence stems and/or frames to facilitate peer discussions.  

Below, figure 1 outlines each step and its purpose, the key questions that students should answer during that read, and possible scaffolds that you can provide. When selecting scaffolds, consider what supports your MLs will need to be able to effectively participate in this activity. You might provide different scaffolds to MLs at varying levels of language proficiency. You can also provide a greater number of scaffolds as students learn this routine and the language needed to take part. Then, as students acquire an understanding of the routine and develop the language that they can use during the routine, you can gradually remove the scaffolds that are no longer needed.  

As you read through the table, consider if there are any additional scaffolds that you would add for your students.  

Figure 1. Three Read Protocol: Steps, Key Questions, and Possible Scaffolds for MLs 

Steps and PurposeKey Question(s)Possible Scaffolds for MLs (aligned to language proficiency levels) 
1st read:
Read to understand the story.
What is the problem about?

•  Teacher reads the problem aloud.

•  Teacher shows visuals to promote understanding of unfamiliar vocabulary.

•  Students use a graphic organizer to support them during each step of the three read activity.

•  Students discuss what the problem is about in pairs or small groups using sentence stems (e.g., I think the problem is about . . .; The problem says . . . ).  

2nd read:
Read to understand the math.

What are the quantities (or numbers) in the problem? 

How do the quantities (or numbers) relate to each other? 

•  Students choral read the problem with the teacher.

•  Students draw a picture on the graphic organizer to represent the problem and the connection between the numbers.

•  Students discuss their understanding of the numbers in pairs or small groups using sentence stems (e.g., One number in the problem is . . .; It represents . . . ).
3rd read:
Read to make a plan.
How can we solve the problem? 

•  Students complete the graphic organizer to write an equation and solve the problem.

•  Students discuss the steps for solving the problem in pairs or small groups using sentence stems (e.g., First, we need to . . .; Next we should . . . ).

How can I get started with the Three Read Protocol?

In order to begin using the Three Read Protocol, I recommend the four following considerations:  

1.)  One way to present this strategy is to first share the first part of the word problem and don’t include the question at the end. Ask students what questions could be answered with the information that they have. Let’s give it a try. Read the math question below.

Abdul has $15. His sister Maryam has $9. They want to buy flowers for their mother that cost $21. 

 Now, consider these questions: 
          •  What is the problem about?  
What do the numbers represent? 
          •  What math questions could you answer with this information?  

Asking students to think about what the possible question might be for the problem gives them an opportunity to consider the relationships between the numbers and what the numbers represent. It also helps them identify where there might be multiple steps needed to solve the problem. This technique allows students to take a step back and think more about the problem before immediately looking for the answer. Some of the possible questions for the problem above are: 

          •  How much do Abdul and Maryam have to spend on their mother’s gift? 
          •  How much will they have left if they buy flowers that cost $21? 
How much more could they spend on the flowers?  

2.) Model and practice each step of the protocol with students using a graphic organizer. When you introduce the strategy, use word problems that are grounded in the students’ own experiences and interests. Eventually, students will need to practice this strategy using word problems that include contexts outside their experiences, but it is helpful to begin with content that is relatable and meaningful.  

In Figure 2, you can see an example of a completed graphic organizer for the word problem about Abdul and Maryam. As you review Figure 2, consider how you might adapt this graphic organizer for use in your classroom.

Figure 2. Completed Graphic Organizer Example 


3.) Embed mini language lessons into your teaching to support MLs in developing the language that they will need to understand and meaningfully engage with their peers. You can introduce and provide an opportunity for students to practice the academic vocabulary that is needed for the unit. It is also important to introduce and practice the formulaic expressions that they can use to explain their thinking and to agree and disagree with peers. As you teach these mini lessons, develop or share resources MLs can use during their discussions, such as a class anchor chart, a word wall, or a student glossary. Figure 3 is a sample anchor chart.  

Figure 3. Sample Anchor Chart 

I think the problem is about … 
The problem says …
One number in the problem is …  It represents …
To solve the problem, we need to …  I think this because the problem says … 

4.) Be strategic in grouping students for this activity. One possibility is to group students together who share the same home language as an opportunity for discussion in their home language. You might also group students heterogeneously in order to support language and skill modeling. It will be important to consider how to structure the activity so that one student does not do all the work in solving the problem and then shares the answer with their peer or peers. If this is an issue, you could consider assigning roles within the group or require turntaking. For example, when working in pairs, perhaps student A shares first for Step 1 and student B shares first for Step 2. 

The Three Read Protocol is just one strategy to support MLs’ engagement and understanding of math. We share more about potential challenges for MLs in math and ways to build their background knowledge, content understanding, and academic language in our book Unlocking Multilingual Learners’ Potential: Strategies for Making Content Accessible (2nd edition).

We’d also love to hear from you about ways that you help MLs gain access to the language of math.  


¹ Kelemanik, G., Lucenta, A., & Creighton, S. J. (2016). Routines for reasoning: Fostering the mathematical practices in all students. Heinemann.

² San Francisco Unified School District Mathematics Department. (n.d.). The 3-read protocol.; Los Angeles Unified School District. (n.d.). Three reads.

³ National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM). (2018). English learners in STEM subjects: Transforming classrooms, schools, and lives. The National Academies Press.

About SupportEd

SupportEd is a woman-owned business based in Fairfax, Virginia providing Multilingual Learner (ML) professional development, personalized coaching, technical assistance, and resources for educators across the United States and Canada. Founded in 2011 by Dr. Diane Staehr Fenner, four-time best-selling author and ML expert, SupportEd builds authentic partner relationships and meticulously crafts customized solutions to fit every partner’s strengths and goals. SupportEd equips teachers and administrators with the practical tools and strategies necessary to champion MLs’ success within and beyond the classroom. Visit or call (202) 660-1444 to learn more.

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