Math Is a Language Too

My Journey from Curry to a School for Learning Differences

Sara Hudspeth and kidsby Sarah Hudspeth
(M.T. ’08 Foreign Lang Ed)

Believe it or not, my training and study in Curry’s foreign language instruction program has made me the math teacher I am today.

I told my future employers that as a French and mathematics teacher, I treated math like another language, the language of numbers and symbols. My French background and foreign language masters degree would be an asset to helping students learn what math communicates via graphs and tables and lines.

The strategies I learned to teach students French applies to communicating numbers, too.  I’m constantly amazed at how the second language acquisition theory and the philosophy of teaching foreign language that I learned at Curry pervade my middle school math classroom.

I teach at The Hill Center, a private school for students with learning differences, in Durham, NC.  My students have ADD, dyslexia, dyscalculia and other learning differences that make them struggle in traditional public, private, charter, and home schools (my students pull from all these different schools). They come to the Hill Center for a small learning environment and differentiated instruction that meets their specific learning needs. They leave with a level of confidence and strong level of learning autonomy. It’s an amazing place to work.

To be successful with the diverse needs of my students and the high level of differentiation, I use my second language acquisition training to create an engaging, dynamic, and demanding classroom. My go-to unit lesson planning template is a variant of the 4MAT method—a technique heavily drilled into my brain and teaching practice by Professor Ruth Ferree.

Paraphrased, 4MAT to me is pique interest, present skills, practice skills, and produce a product. We tend to hang out in the practice quarter of the 4MAT circle in my classroom for a while to master content, but the whole 4MAT circle is important. My students need to access the importance of what they are learning, they need to learn the skills and the processes, and then they need to be able to synthesize and produce what they learned (as a way to follow Bloom’s taxonomy).

For students with executive function and working memory deficits, the routine and structure and repetition of the cycle helps them make the most of their learning time. Instead of not knowing what comes next, they know! We do the same thing, follow the same cycle every day, and that constancy frees up brain space to focus on what matters more: content.

To build the neural centers that process language (so many of my students do have a language disability), I use a lot of Krashen’s theory of language acquisition. To lower students’ affect level (so that they learn without realizing they are learning), I put riddles, puzzles, and math jokes on the board. From the moment my students walk in they are reasoning and thinking and smiling. When a problem is in a form of a joke or riddle, for some reason, students become curious, interested, and motivated. They want to know the unknown, and I get to start my class five minutes early.

Sometimes, the question of the day relates to the topic du jour or a strand of critical thinking I want them to practice, and sometimes it is just a time to guess and reason and think and figure out how numbers communicate. It’s a warmup for their brains.

My students learn differently, and when we do math that is outside the box we often find ourselves in a box, communicating at a higher order level—with words, symbols, numbers, and letters. My outside-the-box training in foreign language instruction has changed the way my students do math and the way I teach math—thanks to Curry!


Sarah (Hagan) Hudspeth teaches math to students with ADHD, dyslexia and other learning differences. She has also taught in Washington, DC, and Charlottesville, Va. When not drinking coffee or tending the sunflowers in her garden, she is hanging out at local parks with her two future Wahoos (ages 2 and 4) and her grad student husband.