What Math Teachers Should Know About Teaching English Learners

June 2018
teacher in a classroom in front of a white board

Based on research, we identified key principles that teachers with English learner students in their classrooms should know. These principles are “big ideas” or concepts about second language acquisition and the academic challenges English learners face.

Mathematics has its own language and representational system, and English learners struggle to understand math concepts in this language.

Mathematics has its own language that includes distinct terminology, syntax, and symbols. It uses some words (for example, “root,” or “set”) differently than they are used in standard, conversational English. It also phrases problems and solutions in a content‐ specific way that can be confusing for students learning English.

Teachers should:

  • Provide explicit instruction on how to read and use mathematical terms, syntax, and symbols
  • Use concrete materials, which help develop mathematical understanding when linked to the concepts they represent

Mathematic word problems are particularly challenging for English learners.

Applying math generally means reading a word problem and figuring out the underlying mathematical principles before solving it. While the words used might seem simple, they are part of complex phrases that are particularly challenging to those still learning English. A single misunderstanding can lead students to a logical but incorrect solution. Even when English learners know the math, they may struggle with the way a question is framed.

Teachers should:

  • Provide opportunities for English learners to explain their strategies for reaching solutions

To learn more about the services we provide to states, districts, and schools to better support English learner students, visit our area of work page and contact Kelli Scardina.