Four Sure-Fire Math Strategies for ELLs


My last piece for the ASCD Inservice blog, “Reach ELL Learners: Nine Best Practices That Really Work,” was a general overview of strategies that work across curriculum and grade levels to move language students toward meaningful learning.

Now, let’s geMath Strategies for Ellst specific. Content-specific, that is. While best practices are so named because they improve student achievement, some best practices lend themselves well to particular content.

As always, these four strategies are not for use with only with ELL learners. Try them with your struggling students, too, and watch learning unfold.

Assess and Build Basic Skills

In one high school ESL class, I had a 9th grade student who came straight from a refugee camp, and an eastern European 10th grader who had taken an advanced algebra class in 5th grade. Both were failing math for different reasons: one could not count from 1 to 10, while the other was frustrated with being stuck in a pre-algebra class.

Teacher’ assumptions can undermine learning—and that’s doubly true in math. Since math progression relies on integrating prior skills, getting an accurate picture of each student’s strengths, weaknesses, and math knowledge is crucial.

This pre-assessment doesn’t need to be lengthy or complex: a few questions from grade-level math strands and a short discussion with each student about their math experiences will suffice.

If new learners are common to your school (or classroom), create a folder or online assessment as part of the introductory process to get a quick handle on student skills and to inform placement decisions.

Use Manipulatives

While I mentioned manipulatives in my previous post, I can’t emphasize their value to middle and high school students enough. Once students move past the literal number sense and basic operational skills, math becomes increasingly conceptual.

Finding ways to translate the abstract into concrete is difficult, if not impossible, for students to do independently. The more concrete a lesson or concept, the less ambiguity there is in both the content and the language.

Don’t forget the value of explicit instruction. Putting a handful of cubes or a pile of materials on a table without clear directions will quickly erode the confidence and interest of students who lack the background knowledge to construct their own visual representations.

Write It Out

As math transitions from numbers to algebraic equations, strings of letters, numbers, and symbols increase the chance for misunderstanding. One of the simplest ways to help students see the actual problem through the tangle of the equation is to have them write the problem out in words and numbers.

For example, have a student rewrite an algebraic expression such as 5x=45 as “5 times x equals 45.” Not only does this reinforce mathematical vocabulary, it makes hidden operations visible.

Writing out problems with complex operations or symbols is a scaffold. Once students see how the words relate to the operational actions and understand the problem as a solvable equation, they no longer need to keep up the practice except when they need the extra help.

Real-World Usage and Application

Every time a teacher (in any content area) says, “you need to learn this because you’ll use it someday,” student interest plummets. Why not make that elusive “someday” into now? Learning a skill, whether in reading, math, science, social studies, or art, simply because “it’s in the curriculum” kills the fun of learning.

Connecting today’s concepts to the world around us adds a layer of educational curiosity. Remember to keep the examples simple and relevant to your students’ backgrounds; think of applications such as going toy shopping with a set amount of money, or knowing how far your car will go on a tank of gas. Flip this and challenge students to share with you connections between their world and math. Make it a contest, or create a journaling activity to engage both language and math skills.

Math can be complicated, but reaching struggling students and ELL learners shouldn’t be. Use these strategies to maximize content input to increase student learning outcomes.

Beth Morrow teaches middle school ESL in Columbus City Schools in Columbus, Ohio. She also blogs on educational and classroom issues at Connect with her on Twitter: @BethFMorrow.