7 Tips on Teaching Math to English Language Learners

To keep pace with their grade-level peers and succeed on high-stakes tests, English language learners need math instruction that meets their learning needs. Today’s post—adapted from Foundations for Teaching English Language Learners, by Wayne Wright—offers seven ideas for inclusive math instruction that supports ELLs (and may help your other learners, too!).

Make charts and visuals with your students. To help students learn the vocabulary and language structures of math, make illustrated math word charts and visuals to go along with math units, such as geometric shapes or measurement words. Better yet, create these with the students! You might make a number line, a 100 chart, a calendar, coins, a clock, a list of ordinal numbers, a chart of skip counting by 2s, 5s, and 10s, math facts, and clue words for word problems signaling the correct operation. Charts like these provide visual support and offer opportunities for daily practice of these concepts

Have hands-on practice. Hands-on manipulatives help ELLs understand concepts that they might not fully grasp if they were only to hear them explained or see them in print. Give students practice with pattern blocks, sorting manipulatives, counting manipulatives, base-10 blocks for teaching place value and regrouping, pie-slice manipulatives for learning fractions, clocks, play money, rulers, protractors, compasses, three-dimensional shapes, measuring spoons and cups, balance scales, and weights. Not only does hands-on practice clarify concepts, it also allows ELLs to demonstrate what they know without having to rely only on words, spoken or written.

Try role-playing. Use role playing to help ELLs understand new vocabulary and unfamiliar concepts in word problems. In a unit on money and how to make change, for example, you could use a toy cash register, play money, and several items marked with different prices. Once you have helped students learn the vocabulary and language needed for this activity, have students take on the roles of customer and cashier and practice counting out money and making change. After role playing, students could be guided in writing word problems to record the situations they acted out (e.g., Reggie has a $10 bill. He bought a magazine for $3 and a candy bar for $2. How much change should he receive?). Eventually, the students should be able to answer similar word problems without the manipulatives and role playing.

Need some book recommendations for teaching English learners? Read this post:

 5 Essential Books for Teaching Multilingual Learners

Use tech as a learning tool. Make math comprehensible for ELLs using bilingual technology designed to enhance or support math instruction. For example, several software programs use the computer’s multimedia capabilities to help students understand and practice math concepts, often in the context of games and other entertaining activities. Students can also use multimedia programs to create their own presentations that demonstrate their understanding of math, and they can use spreadsheet software to create their own charts and graphs.

Use books to support math instruction. Many books are available, both fiction and nonfiction, with mathematical themes. Students might benefit from books like these:

  • The Doorbell Rang by Pat Hutchins tells the story of a family’s batch of cookies that gets further and further divided as more and more friends come over and the cookies must be evenly shared.
  • Cindy Neuschwander has written a series of books appropriate for upper elementary and lower secondary students in which solving math problems is central to the plot; titles include Sir Cumference and the First Round Table: A Math Adventure; Mummy Math: An Adventure in Geometry; and Patterns in Peru: An Adventure in Patterning.
  • For students in the secondary grades, What’s Your Angle, Pythagoras? A Math Adventure by Julie Ellis and Phyllis Hornung provides a fictionalized account of Pythagoras discovering his theorem that can help readers understand the relevant math.
  • Daniel Kenney and Emily Boever have authored a series of humorous chapter books for grades 3 and higher titled The Math Inspectors. The books follow the adventures of a detective agency run by kids who use math to solve local mysteries.

Help student connect math to their lives. Integrating students’ cultures into math instruction is not simply a matter of writing word problems with ethnic names that deal with supposedly “cultural” content.  A more effective approach is to help students connect math to their own lives in their families, their communities, and the world.

For example, one elementary school undertook a project to categorize the biographies in the school library by race, class, disability, and gender. After sorting, classifying, recording, and using percentages, fractions, and bar graphs to summarize and analyze their data, the students found that the vast majority of the biographies were about dead white men. The findings inspired student discussions about equity and representation, and their work extended to collaboration with another school, whose students also analyzed their library’s biography collection. The two groups worked together to analyze the biography collection of the main branch of the public library, where they found imbalances similar to the ones at their own school libraries. Students from both schools met with the public librarians to present their findings and their concerns about the collection. The students also used oral and written language for expository and persuasive purposes in this authentic task.

Weave in multicultural history. Math instruction can also include discussions of the multicultural history of math, in particular the contributions of Indian and Arabic mathematicians. The 10 digits of our number system, for example, are called Hindu-Arabic numbers, a reflection of their origin. Explanations and charts illustrating the history and origins of our number system can be found on the Internet by googling “Hindu-Arabic numeral system.” Also, algebra is an Arabic word (al-gebra; originally al-jebr), first used in writing by the mathematician Muhammad ben Musa al-Khwarizmi in the 9th century CE. Presenting this history to students may be particularly engaging for students of Indian and Middle Eastern heritage and help all students counter confusing messages they receive about other parts of the world.

These strategies for supporting the ELLs in your classroom are also a great way to make math concepts more understandable for all learners. For more guidance on this topic, add the comprehensive book behind today’s blog post to your professional library.

Foundations for Teaching English Language Learners

By Wayne E. Wright, Ph.D.

Prepare teachers and administrators to educate English language learners with this foundational text on effective ELL education, now in an updated third edition that incorporates new research, theory, and practice.

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