English Language Learners

Adapting Math Word Problems for ELLs

To make word problems less confusing, especially for English language learners, change the language, not the math. Here are some ideas.

April 22, 2024

All students have a right to rigorous and challenging math classes, and word problems are a ubiquitous part of elementary and middle school math. Complex language structures or overly challenging vocabulary, however, can sometimes create barriers for students that impede access to a rigorous and challenging math curriculum. This is particularly true for English language learners (ELLs).

As teachers, we strive to cultivate mathematical reasoning and help students apply math to real-world contexts. When designing instruction for our English language learners, we have to ensure that they are afforded access to rich math tasks but also attend to the unique challenges of students working to acquire an understanding of the language. Fortunately, by attending to our vocabulary choices and sentence structure, we can adapt word problems and ensure that all students have access to rich mathematical content.

Certain linguistic features commonly found in middle school math classes are especially  problematic. Passive voice, complex sentences, and long noun phrases or clauses can be very difficult for all learners, but especially multilingual students developing English proficiency. Unfamiliar vocabulary, novel context, and poorly worded or vague questions can also create barriers to understanding. Small changes that simplify language, however, can significantly improve accessibility and ensure that more students can tackle rich math tasks.

Adapting the Math Language

Use the active voice: The passive voice can obscure what is actually happening in a word problem. Use the active voice to show people engaging with the world. For instance, rather than “The ball was thrown by the girl,” revise the sentence structure to “The girl threw the ball.”

Separate complex sentences: Break up long, convoluted, and meandering sentences to express key ideas. Consider the difference between “A hot dog costs $3.75 and a side salad costs $1.65. If a group of 5 students ordered 6 hot dogs and 4 side salads, and they left an 18% tip, how much did they pay in total, including the tip?” and the revised problem, “A group of friends ordered 6 cheeseburgers at $6.50 each and 4 side salads at $1.65 each. They left an 18% tip on the total bill. How much did they pay in total, including the tip?”

Both versions require the same mathematical understanding, but the language of the second is clearer and more accessible.

Simplify verb tense: Lean toward simple present tense. “The maintenance crew repairs the AC unit” rather than “has been repairing.”

Center people in the problem: Humanize problems with people rather than impersonal subjects. “85% of parents supported the schedule,” not “85% of the votes supported....”

Use familiar vocabulary: Swap challenging terminology for more recognizable vocabulary. “The school is hosting a fundraiser by selling concessions during the basketball tournament. If they sold 322 hamburgers at $3 each and 211 hot dogs at $2 each, what was the total revenue from the concession stand sales?”

Here’s a suggested alternative: “The school wants to raise money by selling food at a basketball game. They sold 322 hamburgers for $3 each and 211 hot dogs for $2 each. How much did the school make from selling the food?” Of course, some students will require additional supports, such as pictures and labels for key vocabulary found in word problems.

Shorten clauses: Trim unnecessary clauses. Instead of “The math tutor, who has taught for 10 years, helps students,” use “The math tutor helps students. She taught for 10 years.”

Replace obscure questions: Be sure to look for vague questions that distract from the math and substitute clear, direct questions. Change “What was the resulting amount after the chef used 16½ cups of milk?” to “The chef used 16½ cups of milk to make ice cream. Calculate how much ice cream the chef made yesterday.” Is something missing here?

Consider the big idea: Notice that in the previous example, students do not have enough information to solve the problem. When adapting math word problems for English language learners, revise the construction of your questions to clarify the task at hand, but also be mindful to simultaneously help students to think like mathematicians. To paraphrase what math education innovator Dan Meyer notes in his TED Talk on math instruction, real-world problems do not contain a simple list of all the required information.

As you adapt math instruction for English language learners, be sure to design rich experiences and help them to develop a mathematical mindset. What additional information do I need to solve this problem? What can I do to find the missing information? English language learners need accessible English, but they also need experiences that help them develop habits of inquiry, problem-solving, and self-efficacy.

The key is to adapt language without watering down rich mathematical thinking and problem-solving. Be sure to maintain high expectations while providing appropriate linguistic support. With slight modifications to ensure comprehensible and accessible language, your English language learners can tackle the same meaningful math as their peers.

Equity in math education means meeting each student where they are and helping them reach meaningful goals. Adjusting language is one path toward creating a math community that works for everyone.

Remember, context matters: Real-world contexts allow students to see math as a meaningful tool, rather than an abstract set of rules. However, take care not to introduce obscure, unfamiliar contexts that overwhelm ELLs with new vocabulary. Similarly, jumping between many different contexts in short succession can impede understanding.

When selecting contexts for word problems and examples, opt for familiar situations from students’ everyday lives that clearly illuminate the mathematical concepts. Additionally, aim to consistently revisit and reinforce the same contexts when teaching specific concepts, math models, or problem types. Repeated exposure across similar situations allows ELLs to digest both the linguistic and mathematical nuances. As comfort builds, you can broaden into new contexts, always taking care to explain unfamiliar vocabulary or scenarios that are essential to the problem.

The goal is to have students see math as meaningful while preventing contexts from distracting from the essential mathematical reasoning. Familiar, consistent contextualization keeps the focus on math concepts and problem-solving strategies.

The Power of Mathematical Models and Manipulatives

In addition to thoughtful verbal and written language adaptations, mathematical models and manipulatives provide critical visual and tactile scaffolds that support deeper understanding and reasoning for English language learners. Charts, ratio tables, coordinate planes, fraction models, graphs, algebra tiles, base-ten blocks, and more make concepts concrete while mitigating vocabulary barriers.

Leveraging models and manipulatives moves learning toward mathematical action. Students demonstrate conceptual connections nonverbally, allowing alternative pathways to develop understandings. All students access deeper thinking as teachers elevate mathematical visualization alongside precision in academic language.

When planning for math instruction and adapting for our multilingual learners, I’ve found these resources to be particularly helpful:

Ultimately, we want students to develop a deep conceptual understanding of mathematics and to grow their English language proficiency. Slight adaptations to language, the use of familiar real-world contexts, and deliberately incorporating mathematical models and manipulatives can help students to access the math curriculum and to acquire English.

We’d like to know—what strategies have you successfully used to help improve math accessibility for ELL students? Please comment and share.

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  • English Language Learners
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  • 3-5 Upper Elementary
  • 6-8 Middle School

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