Help ELL Math Students Discover the Universal Language – Part 1


Since numbers are its foundation, mathematics is commonly referred to as the one truly universal language.

But do you see a difference in these equations?

1.000 + 1.000 = 2.000
1,000 + 1,000 = 2,000

Whether these two equations represent the same value could depend on where you are. That’s because how a decimal point is represented differs across cultures: In the United States, decimals are notated with periods, but other countries use the comma. The decimal is just one cultural difference that teachers need to keep in mind. Concepts like measurement (metric vs imperial) and temperature (Celsius vs Fahrenheit) also need to be considered – especially when teaching English Language Learners (ELLs).

Year after year, teachers encounter many types of learners, including auditory and visual learners. But another type of learner, the ELL, has continued to increase over the years. In fact, the percentage of ELLs in U.S. public schools increased between 2002–03 and 2012–13 in all but 11 states. ELLs describe a highly heterogeneous and complex student population who need support to succeed academically.

Though math is a culturally shared language, one misconception has emerged: ELLs will likely be more successful in math courses than other subjects. This may be true for some ELLs, but--despite our intuitions--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 most students may not be as helpful to ELLs.

So how can you support ELLs in your math class? In this 3-part series, we’ll discuss some useful tips.

Tip 1: Support Key Vocabulary

The Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts outlines three tiers of words vital to comprehension and vocabulary development.

  • Tier 1: Basic Vocabulary – words in everyday speech such as dog, clock, big, and run
  • Tier 2: General Academic (High-Frequency) Vocabulary – words typically found in mature language or written text such as obvious, summarize, and justify
  • Tier 3: Domain-Specific (Low-Frequency) Vocabulary – words specific to a field of study or subject such as economics, amino acid, quadratic, and isotope

While numbers may be universal, key math terms are not; most would fall under Tier 2 or 3, requiring a more deliberate effort to learn.

But what about polysemous words? These words have the same spelling and even the same pronunciation, but different meanings. For example, words like angle, table, or expression have one meaning in everyday speech, but another meaning in math classrooms. Therefore, colloquial usage could be confusing to students who struggle with English.

Numerous strategies help students with math vocabulary. Let's look at a few that can help ELLs.

Use Graphic Organizers

Graphic organizers structure and organize information and can help ELLs struggling with vocabulary. Consider the Frayer Model: students define vocabulary in their own words and provide examples, pictures, and even non-examples.

Build a Word Wall

To create a word wall, identify a location in your classroom that is visible to all students and showcase vocabulary terms along with a description, a picture, or even the word's meaning in different languages. Students can refer to the word wall during instruction, and you can create activities supporting the use of the wall. Show these words in context for better understanding. Words can be organized in alphabetical order, in order by concept, or by other criteria students prefer. Your word wall should be dynamic and continuously updated. As the class continues to add words, students’ vocabulary comprehension, spelling, and oral communication are likely to improve.

Here are a few good math word wall examples:

New York City Department of Education: Illustrative word wall
Starr Spangled Planner: Word walls for second grade math
Scaffolded Math and Science: Word wall ideas for high school math and science

Create Flash Cards

Flash Cards allow students to create and access a personalized list of words or phrases. These can include the definition and illustrations. Students should be allowed to refer to the flash cards as needed to improve their comprehension. Teachers can create flash cards to share with their students and add various question formats to helps assess students’ understanding.

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

Compose Acrostic Poems

Poetry and math, an unlikely marriage? Maybe, but the combination can sometimes help struggling students. An acrostic poem is a fun way to help students articulate their understanding of a term. To create an acrostic poem, students spell out a word and use the first, last, or other letters of the word to make the poem. For example, here’s an acrostic poem about a line:

Lacks thickness
Is straight
Never ends
Extends in both directions

Not poetic and need inspiration? Check out these creative math poems.

Other language difficulties can also be troublesome for students in a math class. How are you helping your ELLs with vocabulary?

In my next installment, I’ll discuss using audio and visual aids to support your ELLs.

Tags ELL ESL math

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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