Tips for Teaching Math to English-language Learners

Math is a language all its own. Add that to a student who is already striving to learn English, and the experience can be overwhelming. But studies have shown it doesn’t have to be. It just takes extra support for English-language learners to become proficient in the language of math. Here are some tips for teaching math to English-language learners (EL):

  • Working with Newcomers: Many factors are involved when teaching math to an English-language learner. 
    • How much schooling have they previously had? 
    • What math do they know? 
    • Does their primary language use the same number formation and operational symbols used in English math? 

Initial lessons may need to include basic concepts and skills, as well as what each number and operational symbol looks like. 

  • Use visual representations like pictures and graphs with labels: A pictorial example of a math concept is very helpful for multilingual learners (ML). Labeling the picture and describing what is happening within it builds their vocabulary even more. You can use resources with pre-made pictures or students could draw a simple picture when solving a math problem. For example, a dot can represent an apple and a circle can be a basket. If they are a quick artist, then their pictures can be more realistic as long as it doesn’t take too much time away from the objective of solving the math problem. Visual aids in the form of graphs help students with conceptualizing comparisons. Be sure they understand key vocabulary words used when describing graphs such as increase, decrease, equal, rise, drop, etc. 
  • Use manipulatives to help with understanding abstract concepts: For tips specific to using manipulatives, check out this article: Tips for Using Math Manipulatives. Keep in mind that you may need to teach names, colors, directional use (like move, stack, slide), etc. when using manipulatives to help your EL students. 
  • Units of measurement: If your ML is used to different units of measurement than what is used in your country, it is important to provide charts that allow them to easily compare the different units. Be sure to include the full names of the units as well as all of the abbreviations. It’s also helpful to teach students some benchmarks. Which joint on your hand is about an inch long? A dollar bill is about 6″ long. What does a 5-pound bag of flour feel like? These can help students gain a better understanding of the units of measurement. 
  • Create vocabulary notebooks: Help your EL students create an ongoing math vocabulary notebook that they can add to throughout the year. One idea is to have a page for each operation (addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division). Use pictures to demonstrate the meaning of the words when applicable. As you know, the English language is full of synonyms. Does your student understand that “times” and “multiply” mean the same thing? Be sure to add a list of synonyms for each operation. Include images of how they might see the operational signs used. For example, a division problem can be written in multiple ways. Your EL needs to know all of them are referring to the same skill. Since this notebook is ongoing, information can be added throughout the year as the student learns new skills and terms. 
  • Teach concepts often found in word problems: Inform students of the need to add or subtract when there’s action verbs, when groups are put together/taken apart, or when there’s a constant difference (e.g. an age difference between siblings). When scaling, finding the area, or if there are equal groups, students will need to multiply or divide. One idea to help ML students overcome the difficulties of word problems is to have them focus on the story in the problem, act it out, and use math to describe what is happening. Another suggestion is to use The Three Reads Strategy to help students solve word problems. 

As with learning any language, it takes practice to master the new vocabulary. ORIGO’s Animated Big Books, designed for Grades K-2, are perfect for multilingual learners. These interactive picture books are designed to develop an understanding of fundamental math concepts, enhance instruction, and engage students through rhythm and repetition. They also help students make connections between math and the real world, which increases the vocabulary skills of the multilingual learners in your classroom.

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