Making Word Problems Less Problematic

I worked in adult ESL education before earning my secondary school teacher certification, and one student I’ll always remember was a woman who was a math teacher in her former country. She could handle problems and equations so easily, I had her help other students who asked for help. However, when it came to word problems, she was the one asking for help—which was my first exposure to how hard these problems must be for our students who don’t have the specific math skills she had.

Later, after I passed my PRAXIS II tests in nonmath subjects, I found my students were struggling in their math classes. This made me appreciate what specific reading skills students need to handle word problems. They need to understand a specific situation well enough to exclude what isn’t important, interpret technical terms to understand what is being asked of them, and sort out what to do with the numbers.

Here are some techniques I found that effectively supported my students’ math needs:

1. Do a math vocabulary/concepts needs analysis. The words for “add” and “subtract” may be easy enough, but what about “factors,” “quotients,” or “exponents”? This is one area that is especially tricky for secondary school English language learners because it’s hard to predict what prior education they had—for example, I had one student who was assigned to do quadratic equations with negative integers without ever learning how negative numbers work. It can’t hurt to do a few formative quizzes or conversational exercises to see how much of a background your students have before you start balancing equations.

2. Focus on the strategy. Remember that you are primarily a language teacher, so your objectives should focus more on helping students understand the words and terms associated with a problem so students can learn not only how to get an answer but why that is the result. That means you often need to explain the strategy, discuss how and why it works, and then see if the student can figure out the procedure with some coaching, clues, and/or prompting before moving on to independent activities (Balderrama & Diaz-Rico, 2005).

3. Incorporate some culture. Most math problems you’ll see are written with American students in mind, which means they may not use metric units, they may involve sports that may not be popular in your students’ home countries, or they might include cities that your students haven’t heard of (Ewing & Huguelet, 2009). It’s easy to tell students to tune these out, but it’s hard for them to feel like they aren’t missing something important when they don’t understand the details. For lower levels, you may want to try substituting words, such as “point A” and “point B” for cities, and reinforce unit conversion. More proficient English learners may benefit from taking time between problems to look at whatever pictures of the places or situations you can provide, which can also let you engage in some conversational activities.

4. Pass the BUCK. One popular technique among math teachers that can work well for visually oriented ELLs is the BUCK system: Box the question, Underline the important information, Circle vocabulary words, and Knock-out the unnecessary information. Walking your student through these steps may help them to think about what is being asked of them and make them aware that not every word is important in a word problem. In practice, I found it’s the kind of thing that has to be modeled, assessed, and reinforced a few times, but after a while students start to learn they can break down the words to solve the real problems. You can learn more about it through this video:



Balderrama, M. V., & Diaz-Rico, L. T. (2005). Teaching performance expectation for educating English learners. Boston, MA: Pearson.

Ewing, K., & Huguelet, B. (2009). The English of math—it’s not just numbers! In S. Rilling & M. Dantas-Whitney (Eds.), Authenticity in the language classroom and beyond: Adult learners (pp. 71–83). Alexandria, VA: TESOL Press.

About Nathan Hall

Nathan Hall
Nathan Hall, MA TESOL, MS Education, lives in Pottstown, PA with his wife and two daughters. He has been involved in ESL since he volunteered as a tutor in 2001, which inspired him to leave the field of journalism for education. He has since taught English language learners in a variety of settings ranging from community programs to colleges as well as in several different types of middle schools and high schools. He is currently an ELL specialist at Achievement House Cyber Charter School in Exton, PA.
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2 Responses to Making Word Problems Less Problematic

  1. Vilma says:

    Thanks for sharing great strategies how to help ELLs understand word problems better. I am an ESL teacher in the middle school as well as English Language Learner. This year I am going to support ELLs in 6th grade during the math period since we have many newcomers. In addition to your mention great strategies that I will definitely use, i also would suggest to become familiar with different ways of solving math problems. For example, the division process looks slightly different in different countries. Math teacher need to be aware and willing to accept different methods of “doing math”.
    Also, providing visuals for key math vocabulary is a crucial strategies for teaching Math to ELLs.

  2. As an engineer with grad work in language acquisition/tesol, I concur with much of Nathan’s observations. I too have found that incorporating culture and BUCKing are two effective methods for helping students with math word problems. For me, Mathematics is a language. Thus, when I tutor ELL’s or ESL’ers in science and/or Mathematics I look for connections, connection to what they already know – Connections is the major component of the five C’s.

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