Tips for Teaching Math to ESL Students

Some people assume that math is the easiest subject to teach to ESL students. They think that since numbers are the primary material of the class and since numbers seem to be the same country to country, little room exists for confusion. However, this is not the case. Math can be just as confusing for ESL students as other subjects, which is why specialized teaching strategies must be used to make sure that the ESL student is successful.

Tips for Teaching Math to ESL Students Tips for Teaching Math to ESL Students
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Build on What the Student Already Knows

When teaching math to ESL students, you need to remember that students from different continents might have been taught math in vastly different ways. The content they have learned to date may be different than what is taught in the U. S., and the order of learning specific math subjects may vary.

For example:

  • Just because you have an ESL student in a high school mathematics class does not mean that he or she has already learned about the distributive or communicative property.
  • Various cultures set up long division or multiplication problems in drastically different ways.
  • A 6th grade student might be very good at math, but they may not understand how to solve a problem the way you solve it. They can solve it. It will just look completely different.

You need to figure out what each ESL student in the class already knows and tailor your lesson plans accordingly. Some students may require a review of certain subjects, some may require some one-on-one on new subjects, while other students may be ready to move on to more advanced math subjects.

Make Word Problems Understandable

The other issue with mathematics is that the United States tends to place a great deal of emphasis on word problems. This is certainly understandable as it helps to create interdisciplinary connections to broaden the students' field of learning. However, these word problems also create issues for students who do not speak English as their first language.

  • Students might not understand what the word problem says. If they cannot comprehend the vocabulary used in the word problem, then how can they possibly tackle the question? They will just get lost in understanding the problem.
  • Students might not have been taught word problems in their native country. The entire form of the word problem could be new to them, so they need to be taught how to tackle word problems.

Make sure that the language used in the word problem is simple and clear.

  • Use real world examples in the word problem.
  • Measure distances to travel between two local cities
  • Measuring the total surface area in a room before painting
  • Use sentences with minimal numbers of parts of speech, such as just a subject, a verb and an object.
  • Break long sentences into multiple, short sentences.
  • Write a format for the solution of a word problem on the board with blank lines for the answers. "The answer is ______ miles because the route is a ____________ triangle."
  • Supplement the word problem with an illustration.
  • Review strategies for tackling word problems with the whole class.
  • Encourage students to cross out any unnecessary words in a word problem (such as the color of a car). This will keep them from wasting time trying to incorporate the meaning of a specific word when solving the math problem.
  • Break the class into small groups to work together on word problems. They can ask questions, discuss their concerns and answer questions for other students.
  • Dedicate some extra help sessions specifically to solving word problems.

When ESL students start using word problems, it might help if you pair the student(s) together. If there are native speaking students in the classroom, combine the ESL student with the native speaking student. Reading the problem and working together can build the confidence of both students.

Build a Math Vocabulary List

Understanding the terms and concepts of math is crucial for success. Starting off with a vocabulary list is important.

You may not be able to review every single last word that you are going to use in the class sessions; however, you should create a word list that targets the major and at least some of the minor concepts. For example:

  • Find
  • Calculate
  • More than
  • Less than
  • Equal to
  • Add
  • Subtract
  • Multiply
  • Divide

Reviewing vocabulary as a part of each lesson plan will give your students a solid basis to start from as they learn each new concept.

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Reinforce Language Instruction

The ESL students' ability to understand math concepts will depend on how well they understand English. In addition to math vocabulary, the student will need to understand instructions and will need to be able to communicate their answers and reasoning to you and other students.

For example:

  • Show students how one word can have multiple meanings. If a student is instructed to "find X" on a triangle, they may assume that you want them to identify the "X" on the page - and they may not understand that you also want them to "find" or calculate the value of the "X."
  • Encourage students who share the same first language to explain the material to other students who speak the same language. This will help them quickly understand the concept being taught.

Strategies for Teaching Math

When your teaching strategies key into the core issues of the ESL student, you have a better chance of helping them to accomplish their academic goals in mathematics.