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How to Teach Math to English Language Learners

Tracie Heskett, M.Ed.


ELL Math InstructionTeachers across the country have increasing numbers of English language learners (ELLs) in their classrooms. As a result, teachers need strategies that will help them reach all of their students and ensure that students learn what they need to know.


Many lessons in existing curricula are designed for native speakers of English and do not support second language acquisition. This is particularly true for math instruction. Students need specific vocabulary to talk about and do math.


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ELLs are still learning the language in which the problems and directions are written; they are learning new math skills and a new language at the same time.


What instructional math goals should I have for my ELL students?

Students who are still learning English need instruction in vocabulary to help them understand new math concepts. Exposure to the language of mathematics will help them learn to talk about and write about what they are learning in math.


How do specific strategies help ELL students learn math skills?

Instructional strategies that focus on math and language skills support ELL students as they become proficient in English. Support in students’ primary language skills helps them develop an understanding of math concepts in English. Effective teaching strategies engage students and help them learn.


Develop a supportive learning environment and engage your students in mathematics.

  • Build background knowledge by connecting what students already know about a topic to new skills and concepts.
  • Present new concepts in context and use visual aids to help students understand instruction.
  • Give students opportunities to actively participate in math lessons.
  • Establish cultural connections.
  • Teach students specific skills they will need to know to complete learning activities and assignments, specifically as they apply to learning new math concepts.
  • Use a variety of tools, such as:
  • manipulative objects
  • real-life math connections
  • technology

**TeachHUB Recommendation: Enhance your school's ELL instruction with in-service professional development training.**


Support ELL students during direct instruction.

  • Think aloud while talking through how to read and solve a math problem.
  • Model how to do specific skills or procedures.
  • Consider recording the steps for solving a multi-step problem so students can review.
  • Invite students to interact with questions and comments during the teaching part of a lesson.
  • Have students draw pictures or act out what is happening in a problem to help them understand what the problem is asking and what steps they might have to take to find a solution.
  • Use sentence stems to help ELL students during class discussions.

Sentence Stem Examples

Each of these problems has ______________________________.

The strategy I used to solve this problem was _________________.

Another way I could solve this problem is ______________.

I checked my work by _____________.

I knew I was right when ________________.


Provide additional scaffolding as ELLs move to the independent practice phase of a lesson.

  • Use graphic organizers to guide students through problem solving steps.
  • Explain and have students use simple scoring rubrics to help them understand your assessment of their work and to evaluate classmates’ problem solving processes.
  • Help students make sense out of word problems by teaching them how to mark text. Consider sharing the following tips:
  • Circle important numbers.
  • Underline words that indicate which arithmetic operation to use.
  • Highlight words or phrases that indicate what the problem is asking.
  • Give students questions about the problem, but do not include the actual problem question. This will force students to think about the structure of the problem and the process of solving it without focusing on finding the answer.
  • Encourage students to write about their experiences with math concepts and different types of problems, and have them give examples of their encounters with math in real life.

How do you reach ELL students in your math classroom? Share in the comments section!


If you need additional strategies, tips, and teaching ideas for teaching math to your English language learners, Math Strategies to Use With Your English Language Learners (TCR 2908 grades 1-2, TCR 2909 grades 3-4, and TCR 2910 grades 5-6) by author Tracie Heskett will be available this summer from Teacher Created Resources.


You can also book ELL professional development through the K-12 Teachers Alliance.

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