Three Tips to Help Your ELL Math Students


Year after year, teachers must meet the needs of a wide range of students. Often overlooked, however, are strategies to help English Language Learners (ELL), whose numbers are growing. From 2002-03 to 2012-13, the percentage of ELLs in U.S. public schools increased in all but 11 states. ELLs describe a highly heterogeneous and complex student population that need support in order to succeed in classrooms.

Mathematics is commonly referred to as the only universal language.  Adding two numbers has the same result from one culture to the next, but did you know that how a decimal point and comma are used in math differs across the world? Though math is a culturally-shared language, one misconception has emerged: ELLs are more likely to succeed in math than in other classes. Though this may be true for some ELLs, it is not necessarily the standard. And let’s not forget, learning styles differ from student to student. Techniques that work for one student may not work for another. Likewise, strategies used to support all students may not be as helpful to ELLs.

So how can you help ELLs in your math class? Here are three tips.

Tip 1: Support Key Vocabulary

Flash Cards is available for iOS from the App Store or as a web resource.

While numbers may be universal, key math terms are not. Are you familiar with polysemous words? They have the same spelling and pronunciation across languages, but different meanings.

Imagine asking, “What’s your angle?” In math, an angle refers to the space between two intersecting lines, measured in degrees. In common parlance, however, "angle" can also mean a point of view. Students who struggle with English could easily confuse academic and colloquial uses. Other language difficulties can also be troublesome for math students.

So how do you help students with key vocabulary terms? One way is to create a word wall. To do so, identify a location visible to all students and showcase terms along with a description, a picture, or even the word in different languages. Students can refer to the word wall as necessary during instruction. You can also create activities that focus on the wall and clarify key words in various contexts. As the wall grows, all students’ vocabulary comprehension, spelling, and oral communication are likely to improve.

Teachers and students can also create Flash Cards to reinforce ideas on the word wall and personalize key terms. The cards can include the definition and illustrations.

Tip 2: Use Audio and Visual Aids

Imagine a teacher discussing the concavity of quadratic functions and asking, “Is the graph of the function concave up or concave down?” Because math concepts can be difficult for students to visualize, using audio-visual aids can help remove conceptual difficulties. Although a teacher can demonstrate concavity and explain how the coefficient of the quadratic term determines concavity, a more powerful way to help students understand the concept is to have them explore the function by easily changing the values of the coefficients and observing the effect on the function.

Audio-visual aids should be concise and clear, not distracting. Exploring Graphs of Quadratic Functions (QL #1445), for example, allows students to manipulate the parameters of a quadratic function and observe how the changes affect the graph. By focusing on one function and not being sidetracked by other options or graphs, students can recognize the key relationship.

This graphing tool allows students to explore a quadratic function and recognize the relationship between the parameters of a function and its graph.

Quick tutorials in mathematics provide key concepts through audio and animation. Structured as a conversation between a teacher and a student, the 2- to 5-minute tutorials allow students to listen to instruction while observing explanations with visual cues. For example, the Midpoint Formula quick tutorial helps students learn how to find the midpoint of a line segment on a number line and a coordinate plane.

Tip 3: Encourage Collaboration

What’s the layout of your room? Does it encourage or discourage collaboration? Increasing collaboration can help improve verbal communication, which, in turn, enhances students' understanding of mathematical language. While some students may work well independently, others may prefer the support they get from collaborative work.  Collaborative and group work benefits ELLs by lowering the affective filter. Students are less anxious and self-conscious when verbally demonstrating conceptual understanding in a small group than being forced to do so in a class-wide discussion.

Introducing discourse, and allowing students to debate ideas, can help them clarify their thoughts, evaluate others’ ideas, learn to listen, and build on their reasoning and communication skills. Best practices such as keeping group sizes small, creating group roles, and using diverse groups can help ensure successful collaboration among all of your students.

With these three tips and more, you can successfully support ELLs in your math classroom.

Curriculum Pathways provides nearly 500 math resources, including many that support ELLs. Check them out today!


About Author

Staci Lyon

Staci Lyon is a mathematics curriculum specialist with Curriculum Pathways. She taught high school mathematics for 12 years in Wake County and Granville County. She also taught with North Carolina Virtual Public School. She received both a M.Ed. degree in Instructional Technology and a B. S. degree in Mathematics Education from North Carolina State University. Working alongside a team, she enjoys developing the award winning online math resources for Curriculum Pathways that allow teachers to integrate technology into their classrooms. Outside of work, she enjoys traveling and spending time with family and friends.

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