8 Strategies for Teaching Math to English Learners

Classroom and ESL teachers often discuss difficulties they encounter when teaching math to  English learners (ELs). The first step is to look at the challenges your students face when learning math in English. It’s often said that “math is a universal language,” but in my opinion, it’s not. Teachers need to go beyond teaching students how to add, subtract, multiply, and divide. And even those simple calculations can be taught differently in other cultures. In fact, the cultural backgrounds of our students are rich resources from which mathematical concepts may be developed in English. Here are eight strategies for teaching math to ELs.

1. Validate ELs’ Prior Mathematical Knowledge

For example, teachers of ELs from South America should know that students are taught to show their work when solving division problems in a different way than is taught in the United States. In some cultures, the emphasis is on mental calculations, and students are not taught to show the process they use to solve a problem. I encountered this when I taught students from Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Students from other countries may not learn math concepts in the same order as is taught in U.S. schools; a 4th grade student from another culture may have never studied geometry because it is taught at a higher grade. It’s important to be aware of what your ELs know and what they have been taught when it comes to math so that you can validate that learning by building on it—rather than stumbling over it.

2. Provide Scaffolds to Support ELs’ Understanding of Math Problems

Simplify the language of the math problem. Have students practice picking out key words and talk about what they mean using highlighters, Wiki Sticks, or sticky notes. Colored highlighters have been known to enhance memory performance. Highlighters and sticky notes also boost student engagement in the lesson you are teaching. One trick is to have ELs  highlight the question they have to answer in a math problem or use a pen to eliminate unnecessary words. Wiki Sticks can also be used to underline key ideas in the math textbook, because they are not permanent and can be reused.

3. Use the Same Types of Scaffolds You Use for Other Content Areas

What scaffolds do you use when teaching English language arts and social studies? Use these same scaffolds when teaching math. Create vocabulary banks so that your students can turn-and-talk to classmates using mathematical terms. Access your ELs’ prior knowledge and build on it. Modify teacher talk, provide adequate wait time, and use visuals to teach math concepts and language.

4. Preteach Math Vocabulary

Previewing and preteaching new math vocabulary words is an important scaffold necessary to help ELs understand mathematical concepts. Remember that your ELs are learning two new languages—English and the language of mathematics in English. We can’t expect ELs to take a list of math vocabulary words from a chapter and look up the words in a dictionary. They require direct instruction of new math vocabulary and plenty of practice to develop math fluency in the concept.

5. Present Math Problems and Concepts Visually

I can’t say enough about the importance of employing all kinds of visual supports when teaching ELs any content area. Use charts graphs, realia, diagrams, pictures, and graphic organizers. Word Walls should be used at all grade levels. Teach specifically the language of mathematics. Help students understand the different meanings of words such as table and how to use them correctly in a mathematical context.

6. Give Students Opportunities to Talk to Each Other

According to Kristina Robinson in an excellent article for Colorín Colorado,  teachers should have ELs speak with other students in small groups or with a partner during whole class discussions. This may make them feel more comfortable trying out new vocabulary without the anxiety of speaking in front of the whole class. ELs will understand material better if they explain it to another student either in English or in their home language. Newcomers certainly benefit from hearing the explanation in their first language. Another way to help ELs talk about math is to ask for whole class, choral responses instead of calling on individual students.

7. Have ELs Create Their Own Math Notebook

A notebook dedicated to math vocabulary can be a boost for older math students in Grades 4–12. It can be set up to fit the age and needs of the students in your class. Words can include definitions in your ELs’ own words and or in their own language. I’ve found that choral recitation can really increase ELs’ oral participation in a lesson. If you provide a sentence frame similar to those used in other content areas, even beginning ELs will be able to write down responses and produce them orally.

8. Bridge the Gap Between Math and Real-World Issues

You may want to develop math projects that focus on themes or issues that are relevant to the cultural, racial, and linguistic composition of your classroom. Kwame Sarfo-Mensah, a middle school teacher in Boston, wrote in Edutopia that mathematics should not be taught in isolation. He finds that the best way to find a theme that your students will really care about is to ask them. His students, for example, selected the topic of police brutality, which had impacted them personally in their community. Sarfo-Mensah also suggests that teachers check their state math standards to see what mathematical concepts would apply to the issue that their students have chosen.

What strategies and scaffolds have you found most useful when teaching math and mathematical language to ELs? What have you found particularly challenging? Please share in the comments, below.

About Judie Haynes

Judie Haynes
Judie Haynes taught elementary ESL for 28 years and is the author and coauthor of eight books for teachers of ELs , the most recent being “Teaching to Strengths: Supporting Students Living with Trauma, Violence and Chronic Stress“ with Debbie Zacarian and Lourdes Alvarez-Ortiz. She was a columnist for the TESOL publication "Essential Teacher" and is also cofounder and comoderator of the Twitter Chat for teachers of English learners #ELLCHAT.
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