Why 3-Act Tasks are Powerful for English Language Learners

As I continue to study accessibility in education, specifically Universal Design for Learning, structure and strategies for supporting learners served through Special Education and Gifted and Talented Education, and our English Language Learner population, I have come to the (obvious) conclusion that curriculum development and design involves a complicated, intricate web of planning long before the first words are added to a blank canvas of direction for educators.  It comes down to scalability.  What format/structure/strategies should be embedded in the curriculum (that may be applied horizontally and vertically throughout) so that the resources are seen with clarity and may be supported through efficient and effective professional learning?

Before I can move forward, I need a plan.  This is a huge opportunity and I want to make the most of it.

Recently, my perspective on curriculum development and design has been impacted by a Ted Talk by Todd Rose and various articles and information related to Universal Design for Learning.

  • Todd Rose: The Myth of Average (TEDx): Mr. Rose shares the story of the U.S. Air Force design of the cockpit  for the average pilot and makes a connection to an education system’s design for an average student.  He challenges us to to wonder: Does there exist an average student?  If not, then if we design for the average student, we design for nobody.  We must recognize that students vary in each dimension and we must respond accordingly.  As Mr. Rose says – Ban the average. Design to the edges.
  • Universal Design for Learning: By planning from the beginning for curriculum to be accessible to as many learners as possible, the need to retro-fit lessons and materials are minimized.  (Hunt & Andreasen, 2011).

Enter: The 3-Act Task.

First, a little background on the format of 3-Act Tasks (more info here):

  • Act One: The learners are provided with an image, video, or other piece of information that introduces a conflict.  This conflict may be that the learners disagree with their classmates, or with themselves.  That is, what they see may be contrary to what they believe, mathematically.  Key: Use as little text as possible, because once you tell the learners something, you cannot untell them.
  • Act Two: The learners determine what tools are needed to resolve the conflict or problem.  They must either request these tools or develop these themselves.  Key: Provide as little as possible, because once you give the learners something, you cannot ungive them.
  • Act Three: The learners resolve the conflict.  This is when the solution is determined and compared to the initial idea for reasonableness.  A reflection occurs to foster metacognition and add to the learners’ toolboxes to use in future problem solving.

Now, for the connection to our English Language Learners:

According to Beyond Good Teaching: Advancing Mathematics Education for ELLsthere are five Guiding Principles for Teaching Mathematics to English Language Learners.  I argue the inquiry model of 3-Act Tasks in mathematics (done well) support these guiding principles.

1.  Challenging Mathematical Tasks

All learners, ELLs included, need to experience mathematical tasks at a high level of cognitive demand.  This article (link) articulates the four levels of Depth of Knowledge according to Norman Webb.  The levels are neither developmental (this means even our youngest learners can experience strategic and extended thinking) nor sequential (learners need not experience level 1 before tackling level 2, etc.).

One of my favorite 3-Act Tasks is Volcano.  Challenging, indeed!  There are multiple entry points to solve this problem.  That is, the learners may successfully solve the problem in various means – not only by using a single algorithm.  They may draw a picture, look for a pattern, make a table of data, or use abstract formulas to solve.  Because the task contradicts the obvious method of solving (2-dimensional measurement rather than 1-dimensional), I argue this is a level 3 DOK task.  And thus, engaging!

2.  Linguistically Sensitive Social Environment

Such a learning environment fosters extensive educator-supported interactions in all forms among the learners and the educator (this includes between the leaners themselves).  This atmosphere is safe, allowing for opportunities for learners to ask questions and seek knowledge related to language.  Careful attention is paid to providing a low-stress classroom.

During the Volcano task, the town name “Tarata” and the abbreviations for hour and minute should be clarified to avoid barriers that may occur.  Though the language of this task is very minimal, even the three aforementioned terms could cause a stressful environment for ELLs to manage and therefore may be unable to engage optimally in this learning experience.  The educator should kindly check in with ELLs and provide a safe environment for them to ask questions, either to other learners or to the educator.

3.  Support for Learning English While Learning Mathematics

A Mathematics Discourse Community (MDC) supports all learners’ communication about mathematics.  This includes reading, writing, speaking, listening – all about the mathematics of the task.  Mathematical discourse builds the language while learning the mathematics concepts.

Technology integration while experiencing the Volcano task provides an opportunity to capture the process of problem solving.  Using a voice recorder app such as Voice Record Pro allows learners (specifically ELLs) to capture the metacognition involved in the problem solving process.  Note taking apps such as Notes or Notability allow learners to capture images within notes and have an embedded microphone feature to include verbal reflection as well.  Once learners have engaged in the MDC and practiced articulating the mathematics of the task in a safe environment, they may use technology tools to capture their language.

4.  Mathematical Tools and Modeling as Resources

Within Act Two of the inquiry experience, learners recognize the necessity for specific tools to support the problem solving process.  These tools may include measurement tools, images, or diagrams as scaffolds for the task.

In the Volcano task, handouts include maps with city names and additional video footage of the situation.  Additional models may include recreations of volcanic eruptions (as concrete representations) and connections to concepts of area, distance, and other measures.  Educators and learners may create/reference anchor charts as tools as well.

5.  Cultural and Linguistic Differences as Intellectual Resources

As members of a learning community, the cultural and linguistic differences among the class are valuable resources, seen as a commodity to be used to collaboratively solve problems and feed into the MDC.

Related to the Volcano task, the MDC within the classroom should foster input from all learners, supporting the collective insight of the members.  Strategies such as a Socratic Seminar build learners’ discussion and listening skills and provide opportunities to contribute to the MDC.

3-Act Tasks are more than engaging, high quality math problems.  Their structure, with intentional implementation of MDCs and technology integration, supports the Guiding Principles for Teaching Mathematics to English Language Learners.  Done well, 3-Act Tasks support implementation of the English Language Proficiency Standards and open the doors of problem solving to all learners.  All Learners.

Then, those learners who have positively, successfully tackled inquiry experiences continue to build background knowledge and a positive perspective on mathematics learning.  And, we know the value of mindset.


Hunt, Jessica and Janet Andreasen. 2011. “Making the Most of Universal Design for Learning.” Mathematics Teaching in the Middle School. 17: 167-72.


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