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How Do We Support English Learners Success in Mathematics?

By Evgeny Milyutin posted 02-27-2018 08:46

By Evgeny Milyutin and Lisa Meyer

Put yourself in a students’ shoes for a minute. Imagine that throughout your whole life, the only language you’ve heard or spoken is Spanish. You’re from a rural town in Honduras, the only home you know, and then at age six your family moved to the USA. Once there, you were signed up for 1s t grade at the local elementary school, and you were thrown right into an English-speaking classroom. While at school, you received some English language support, but what you heard all day long at school is English.

Take another look, you used to love math class in Honduras; yet, in your American classroom you feel bored, exhausted and frustrated. In fact, instead of feeling smart and capable, you’re actually starting to believe you’ll never be a good student in your American math classroom.

This is the scenario that many immigrant students face upon arriving in the United States. Even students who were born in the USA may grow up with a different home language. School might be the first place they hear English for prolonged periods of time. Today, 1 in 10 students in public schools are ELLs (English Language Learners).

Implications for the Mathematics Classroom
Federal law requires that school districts ensure that ELLs can “participate meaningfully in schools’ educational program,” and that schools strive to bridge language barriers. Math is challenging subjects itself, adding language barriers to it is making success in it unreachable . More recently, legislation has gone as far to require that districts use strategies and programs to help ELLs that are backed by scientific evidence. (1)

While this legislation is important and it sounds agreeable, supporting ELLs presents a challenge for teachers. Teachers may not speak the native language of the child or have the resources and tools to properly address ELL needs. Training and learning how to include these students takes time and effort, which is hard in schools where a myriad of other needs must be met. Many schools offer special ELL pull-out classes and groups to support children as they learn English, but, in the main classroom students continue to struggle with English. This barrier may cost students academically as they fail to grasp concepts in math, science and, of course, language arts.

I interviewed Lisa Meyer, Director of Programming for Dual Language Education of New Mexico, on the best practical strategies for supporting English language learners in bilingual programs. Designing the right program to support a district/ school’s specific ELL population is a challenging and important task. That support depends on many factors, such as availability of resources, percentage of ELLs, and language(s) represented. With that in mind, there are at least three important DON’Ts when it comes to teaching math to ELLs in a bilingual program:

1. DON’T constantly translate while teaching. It is important that the student learning is focused on the math, not on its translation in different languages.

2. DON’T re-teach the same content in one language, and then again in the second language. Instead, introduce the concept in one language and then plan how to transfer the language and apply the learning in the other language.

3. DON’T approach it as the responsibility of one teacher. Instead a bilingual program should be carefully planned so it is coherent across the grade levels and all the participating educators should align their efforts.

Now consider some of the DOs - what can we do to reach ELL students in mathematics classrooms? How might these suggestions benefit all learners?

1. DO front-load mathematics vocabulary . Introduce vocabulary before lessons, so that ELLs have access to and can build understand of the math language. Be aware of multiple meaning words that cause confusion for language learners: “Draw a table. Make up a word problem. Show the translation of the figure”. 

2. DO provide multiple representations of mathematics concepts . Support ELL students by modeling, creating visuals, describing with words, symbols, or numbers .Chart key vocabulary and examples with students. Leave these anchor-charts up so you and the students can refer back to them.

3. DO encourage ELL students to represent their understanding with multiple representations . A Frayer Model or a Four Square Model for solving word problems are examples of such support tools .

4. DO expect all students to participate in math . Provide supports such as sentence stems, think-pair-shares, intentional groupings for cooperative learning activities, and guided math groups so ELLs can be successful.

5. DO build on language and concepts that students already have . Observe students to see what they have learned in their language (understanding of place value, strategies for multiplying/dividing, or the names of geometric figures).

Your turn now -- what are your DOs and DON’Ts when it comes to teaching math to ELLs? The comment box below is yours! 

#ElementarySchool #ELL




05-02-2020 13:18

I was a Kindergarten student teacher this year for an ESL class. More than half of my students spoke English as their second language and I even had students who spoke no English at all. This article provided me with a lot of helpful insight. I like the DO and DON'T suggestions. After reading your post, I am happy to see I did actually already take the things you stated into account. The suggestions you have listed were things that I did for my ELL students. I was already in the right direction and your blog helped me realize that!

04-11-2020 23:34

Hello Evgeny Milyutin and Lisa Meyer,

I was immediately engaged within the first sentence. I am about to graduate and become a bilingual teacher in the state of Texas. I know exactly what you are talking about because I was one of those lost kids and I had no idea what was going on in math because I focused only on understanding English. I have more Do’s than DON’Ts. In the district where I do my student teaching semester, math is only taught in English, but many times I broke the rule, especially when I'm introducing a new concept. I find it difficult to see my first graders confused during math because they don't understand the language, but I do my best to teach math mainly in English. My main DO is to give visuals, concrete representations and simple examples that my non-English speaking students can understand. Thank you for this great post I will keep in mind your list of Do’s!

08-22-2019 16:39

I really like this list of "dos" in regards to language. Since vocabulary instruction has an effect size of .62 (according to Hattie's text Visible Thinking) I would say that this list is just best practice for ALL students! Thank you for sharing - do you happen to have this list typed as a pdf to download?

05-07-2018 13:57

Tiffany, thanks for reading! I'm glad you found the information helpful. With the right strategies, teachers can really make a difference in helping ELL students excel in math.

04-28-2018 22:48

This was a really insightful article about teaching ELL supports in the math classroom. I really enjoyed reading about the "DO" list and the Read three ways strategy and how they were both useful to enhancing the students' understanding. Good information!

03-12-2018 12:16

Thanks for reading Ellen. You're right, the only strategies that work also take into account the reality of the classroom for teachers. As you mention, many teachers have students from many backgrounds in their classroom in addition to many native English speakers. In your job as a support for teachers, I'm sure you are well aware of the challenges in addressing ELL needs while still maintaining a functional classroom for everyone. I'm so glad you liked the "DO" list.

03-08-2018 13:13

Thank you for this article. I think you balance student support and teacher reality. I support teachers that have 6 separate languages in a single class. Students love the Read three ways strategy. I appreciate your DO list as well.

03-07-2018 04:52

Kellie, Megan, thanks for reading and thanks for your input. The three reads strategy is definitely a great technique to use with both native English speakers and ELL students. In many ways, it's similar to other models and strategies. For example, both the four square model for solving word problems and the three reads strategy can help students understand different parts of a word problem and think carefully about what is known and what can be found out. I agree that the use of anchor charts and involving students in their creation are also great strategies. Making use of a combination of approaches is great so that teachers can work with students individually, in groups or as a whole class.

03-03-2018 16:50

Very strong suggestions to serve English Language Learners. I also very much adore the Three Reads Strategy too! This has been very powerful in our District, especially since we value keeping expectations high for ALL our learners and increase access without diminished cognitive rigor. Stripping the numbers & question(s) in a language heavy task can focus learners on the context and language demands rather than relying on "key words" to solve. 
Sheltering the language, re-processing, and co-constructing anchor charts further deepen application when partnering math tasks with the Three Reads Strategy.

02-28-2018 07:47


I think this is important for our conversations around access and equity in math classrooms... I wonder how both US-based teachers are reaching all learners in math classrooms, and how international-school teachers are doing the same?