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English Language Learners

4 Strategies to Help English Learners Master New Math Skills

Developing new math skills for students learning English means keeping them on grade level and building on their existing speaking, reading, and writing abilities.

February 16, 2023
FatCamera / iStock

Math is often touted as a “universal language,” because numbers work the same no matter where you’re from. But students who speak English as a second language need special support to make sense of the complex instructions and linguistically challenging word problems that make up much of math instruction.

Fortunately, even when learning English, students are still capable of keeping up with their peers and excelling at math on grade level. That’s the driving force behind a California training program from The New Teacher Project and Stanford University’s Understanding Language center, according to a report published in EdSource.  

“We know from our work that multilingual learners do not have the same access to grade-level assignments as their peers,” Jeanine Harvey, director of multilingual learner academics at The New Teacher Project, told EdSource. “We wanted to show teachers that all students could engage with grade-level assignments with the right supports.”

Key to the training program, and advice shared by other experts on multilingual education, is not only making sure students understand the problem but also that they have enough space and time to process the information and organize their thoughts. Some productive struggle—and a little understanding from teachers—can go a long way, too. 

These are a few of the strategies recommended by the training program and other experts.

1. Read, Read Again, and Discuss

Asking students to read over a word problem multiple times and discuss it with a partner can help students feel less “bogged down,” as teacher Nicole Thompson told EdSource. In her class, students read over each problem three times. 

After the first read, her students pair up and discuss the situation being described; then they do a close read looking at the numbers in the problem; and finally, they tackle the actual problem and its solution. It helps all students better understand what they’re reading, but especially her multilingual learners, she says. 

That approach is similar to the 3-Read Protocol used in math classes at Concourse Village Elementary School in the Bronx, which is known for its innovative use of collaborative literacy strategies to support science, math, and social studies units.

Teachers start by reading word problems to the class without numbers or questions. “Sometimes when kids see numbers, they start to get confused,” explained one teacher at the school. “If we take out those numbers for a brief moment, they’re reading it as a story and they’re getting that understanding. It’s no longer just about math.”

Students read the problem again and pull out numbers and key words before drawing on their prior knowledge to hypothesize about what the question might be asking. Then the class reads it together with the final question and computations included. The idea is that by the third read, students are not only ready to solve the problem but to explain their thinking step-by-step. 

Teachers told EdSource that strategies like these have the added benefit of getting more students talking and working together, thereby improving their overall English skills. As fifth grade teacher Juan Gonzalez noted, students are often more capable in this area than teachers give them credit for. “We have to let go of their hand and let them struggle a bit,” he says.

2. Build Strong Vocabulary Skills 

If students don’t understand what they’re reading, it might not matter how many times they read it over. That’s why mastering math concepts often means building strong skills for learning new vocabulary. 

In the The New Teacher Project training, teachers learned to analyze word problems to pull out the key terms students need to know to understand and solve the problem—and curate illustrative images or simple text definitions. 

Since the training focused on multilingual learners, trainers reminded teachers that it’s not just math vocabulary that needs reinforcing, but terms that might not be obvious to English learners. In a problem about carnival ticket prices, for example, teachers might begin by exploring terms like “school carnival” and what the “best deal” for tickets could mean, as well as more idiomatic expressions like “running the ticket booth.” Teachers then showed pictures of carnival rides and larger and smaller currency denominations to create visual definitions of the terms. 

Aside from that, teachers use a variety of creative strategies to build strong math vocabulary, including word walls, familiar games like Pictionary, and a “words of the week” activity, during which students are exposed to terms multiple times to help them stick. 

3. Let Students Use Their Home language First

Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan has spent decades studying what good literacy pedagogy looks like, including across disciplines and for English learners. His ideas are germane for educators building stronger comprehension skills in any subject, including math.

As an alternative to discussing word problems in English, try letting students who speak the same language discuss the problem in their home language, he suggests. 

“Giving language learners a chance to think through and discuss a text in, say, Spanish before they take it on in English makes them less embarrassed to take part in the discussion,” he says in a recent interview with Edutopia. “Cognitively, it also allows them to take on ideas in a fairly mature and sophisticated way using their best language and skills.”

This gives them a similar advantage to English-speaking peers who are already thinking and working in their native language. Afterward, he’s found they’re often more comfortable with the idea of coming together to discuss their findings in English, since they no longer have to translate and solve the problem simultaneously. 

4. Validate Students’ Existing Knowledge

While students who began learning numeracy and mathematics in other contexts and cultures invariably have had prior exposure to math, they likely have different notions about how to process and solve problems.

For educators, that presents a challenge in acclimating students to a new pedagogical approach—yet it’s also an opportunity. As educators Larry Ferlazzo and Katie Hull Sypnieski  note, research shows that it’s easier to learn something new when we connect it to the knowledge we already have. That means educators who activate their students’ prior knowledge by getting them to reflect both on what they already know can better prepare them for new learning. 

In some countries, including many Latin American ones, research has found that schools often focus more on mental calculation, drills, and memorization than we do in the U.S.—but it’s sometimes at the expense of collaboration and explaining each step. Other countries sequence math concepts in a completely different order, meaning a fourth grader might enter class without much exposure to a subject like geometry. 

It’s for this reason that English learner expert and educator Judie Haynes rejects the idea of math as a universal language. Haynes has written for TESOL about her desire to see teachers take time to recognize these cultural differences before assuming how to proceed.

“It’s important to be aware of what your [English learners] know and what they have been taught when it comes to math so that you can validate that learning by building on it—rather than stumbling over it,” Haynes writes.

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