Four Key Strategies that Help English Learners (EL) Succeed in Math Class

Here are two facts we all need to know. By 2025, nearly 25% of public-school students will be an English learner, and more than 70% of those will be Spanish-language speakers. Furthermore since 1996, average math scores for English learners are consistently lower than those of their non-EL peers. Given that in a couple of years, one in four students will be an English learner, how can we ensure that they are provided with every opportunity to become successful, confident mathematicians? How can we help ELs learn, and excel in, math as they simultaneously learn a new language? Below I share a few strategies that I believe help English learners fully engage in math class. The benefit of most of these strategies is that they help all of the learners in your classroom.

Build on What Students Know

As is the case when working with any student, we need to know what our EL students know. This is especially important given that the order of learning specific math concepts may be different in the student’s home country. It takes time and investigation to assess the math preparedness of ELL students. With students who have very limited English, it may be easier initially to assess math learning in the student’s first language. ORIGO’s Stepping Stones 2.0 offers student materials in both English and Spanish. Check to see if the program you use offers language support for English learners. If you don’t have access to in-school bi-lingual resources, use translation apps such as Google Translate, iTranslate, Microsoft Translator, or SayHi Translate. Encouraging students, especially those who are just beginning to learn English, to do math in their native language can really help you assess just what their math capabilities are.

Teach Math Language and Vocabulary Strategically

Math has often been referred to as the universal language since nearly all cultures use the same decimal number system and mathematical symbols. However, language is a critical component of teaching math—after all we introduce students to new math concepts via verbal and written instruction, which is dependent upon students being able to understand English. Additionally, in the U.S. math talk is an essential component of the elementary classroom as students are encouraged to discuss strategies, explore solution paths, challenge peers’ ideas, and defend their own reasoning.

Preview and pre-teach math vocabulary. Introduce all students to key mathematical vocabulary they will encounter in upcoming lessons. Work with students to create an illustrated vocabulary bank or word wall to which everyone can refer as they work through problems. Students can also keep individual vocabulary notebooks or have a vocabulary section in their student journals, where English learners might supplement the classroom information with a definition in their native language.

Remember you will also have to teach non-math vocabulary. And, think about how a lack of background knowledge might impact an English learner’s ability to understand a particular problem. Additionally, problems involving currency, measurements, and temperature will require further instruction since these differ across the world. This focus on non-math vocabulary also provides an excellent learning opportunity for your non-EL students. Just think of the rich discussions the class can have as they learn about different parts of the world and different ways of doing things through the eyes of their classmates.

Simplify the language in word problems. Now I don’t mean simplify the math, but rather simplify the language in the problem. Look for opportunities to substitute more common words so that English learners can concentrate on the mathematical operation rather than on new English vocabulary. Or consider presenting the same problem in two versions, the first with the original wording and an alternate version that strips out some of the extraneous words. This allows English learners to focus on the math, but also provides them with the ability to compare the two versions and improve both their English and mathematical comprehension. Additionally, be aware that the passive voice, often used in word problems, can be particularly challenging for students learning English. No need to look for different word problems, simply restate the problem using an active verb tense. The most important thing in math class is to help students concentrate on the math. EL students will have plenty of opportunity throughout the school day to explore the richness of the English language.

Show that vocabulary can have multiple definitions. English learners can have difficulty with words that have different meanings in social and math language. Think of words like table, product, ruler, volume, odd, even, mean, expression, or times, which they may have encountered in daily English usage but have completely different definitions when it comes to math.

Use sentence frames. All students can benefit from math sentence frames which provide context and meaning for vocabulary as well as presenting specific structures for discussing math. Sentence frames allow English learners to more easily contribute to math discussion and may help them feel less intimidated, particularly when speaking in front of the whole class. Sentence frames also benefit everyone as they model mathematically correct language, which many students, not just English learners, struggle with.

Use Visuals and Manipulatives

Visual supports can dramatically improve English learners’ comprehension. As I discussed above creating a word wall with definitions and images can help reinforce key vocabulary. Graphic organizers are powerful, visual tools that can help all students, and particularly English learners, clarify and simplify complex concepts. Graphic organizers also help depict the relationship between terms, math facts, and concepts—an important step in helping students truly understand the math behind a problem.

Word problems are used in all elementary grades and can pose a particular problem for English learners. Providing images or sketches to accompany word problems and encouraging students to illustrate the problem with a drawing, provides an additional reference point, reinforces vocabulary, and presents students with a way to demonstrate their understanding. Using visual supports, such as charts, graphs, pictures, diagrams, word walls, graphic organizers, etc. provides scaffolding for and can help improve the participation of students who are learning not only math, but English.

Although important for all students, manipulatives can be particularly helpful for English learners who may find it easier to communicate their ideas using tools rather than words, giving them a path to demonstrate their understanding and participate in math discussions. English learners often have greater math abilities than they are able to demonstrate verbally. The use of manipulatives provides you with valuable insight into students’ prior knowledge base and their grasp of the math concepts being taught. And providing English learners with access to a variety of manipulatives can help them test their ideas and build confidence as they continue to learn how best to express their mathematical thinking verbally.

Encourage Students to Collaborate

Collaboration is essential for all students when learning math, but is particularly important for English learners since they may feel more comfortable using their nascent English-language skills with a partner or in small groups. It can be challenging for students whose native language is English to speak in front of the whole class, and for EL students whole-class discussions cannot only be intimidating but difficult to follow as the conversation moves quickly between different speakers. Collaboration provides English learners with not only the ability to share their ideas but also to hear the way other students phrase their thinking and their answers. Furthermore, working in pairs or groups gives English learners the time in a low-stakes setting to translate their ideas into words.

When grouping students, consider not only math ability but also language skills. Just as students with varying math skill levels benefit from working together, so do students at different stages of English proficiency. Also think about grouping students who share a native language but where one speaker is further along in learning English. The student with stronger English-language skills benefits by teaching what they know, the student with beginning English benefits by hearing instructions and concepts in their native language. And all of the students in the group have the opportunity to learn vocabulary in another language. A win-win!

And to end, a few ways to modify teacher talk

  • Simplify your language and speak at a moderate pace, slow down when necessary
  • Show and tell whenever possible through demonstration, role-playing, and modeling
  • Ask for choral response during whole-class instruction, which showcases new vocabulary and models correct phrasing
  • Use real-world examples linked to English learners’ culture and country of origin
  • Ask questions geared toward different language proficiencies or ask for non-verbal responses
  • Use prompts to help English learners get started when responding to a question
  • Practice wait time, remember English learners have to think and translate that thinking into a new language
  • Revoice what English learners say to call attention to their mathematical thinking
  • Avoid correcting language errors as that can discourage participation, rather model correct usage
  • Check frequently for comprehension, important for all students, not just English learners
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Sara Delano Moore, Ph.D.

ORIGO Education

ORIGO Education has partnered with educators for over 25 years to make math learning meaningful, enjoyable and accessible to all.

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