Math As A Second Language

math game, math app, math games, ell, esl, eal, language in school, learning a new language, helping ell students, math and ell, ells and mathIn the US almost 10% of students in the public school system speak English as a learner (ELL).  Although the language of math is theoretically universal, their ability to learn may be twice as challenging thanks to the linguistic barrier.

“The challenge of teaching math to ELL students lies not only in making math lessons comprehensible to students but also in ensuring that students have the language needed to understand instruction and express their grasp of math concepts both orally and in written language.” One expert wrote.

So how does a teacher go about teaching her class math and English at the same time? We scoured the Internet for advice and found some valuable information:

Be Sensitive

The student may come from a culture where making eye contact with adults is considered rude, or from an environment where asking questions is not encouraged. If you believe that they are having trouble understanding a topic, then act with caution and be perceptive. Speak to them after class if possible.

Encourage a Student to Speak Up

It’s hard enough to put your hand up in class, but it’s even harder to talk when you are not confident that you will be understood. However, the fastest way to learn a language is through practice. Structure your class in such a way that ELLs have an opportunity to speak, write, read and listen. This may include group or partner work (try and partner the ELL student with a fluent English speaker), or an opportunity for students and teachers to have one-on-one time.

Don’t Make Tests More Testing

This does not mean you should take it easy on your class, by all means, bring on the tears. However, watch the way that English is used on your papers. Do you use a lot of slang when asking questions? Is there a clearer or simpler ways to phrase things? Try to make test questions as clear as possible and let the numbers do your work for you.

Check Your Language

There are a lot of words which come up in everyday life that may be foreign to ELL students. You should use them but be wary of what is or isn’t assumed knowledge.  Don’t drop holiday hotspots casually into a class discussion without explanation, for all you know your ELL students may believe that a reference to The Big Apple is another math term that they had never heard.

Define Your Terms

There are many specialized math terms that ELL students may be unfamiliar with, like polygon, sides, vertices, angles. Make sure that you have found a way of conveying these concepts to your student. Perhaps print off a worksheet before each lesson and encourage your student to keep it in a folder. Or perhaps spend 10 minutes a week in helping the child build up a glossary at the back of their exercise book.

Use More Than Words

The universality of math means that there are many strategies at your disposal. When you are explaining an idea you can gesture, draw and use charts and graphs. Allow time for discussions around new concepts to take place and engage your ELL student with whatever tools you have at your disposal.

So beloved teachers, are there any bits of advice that you could offer on keeping ELL students on track? Is there something that worked particularly well with a specific culture? We would love to hear your comments.



Marina Gomer is a journalist and mother of two.  She lives with her family in Sydney, Australia.