ESL + Math = An Incredible Combination for Meaningful, Fun Language Learning

When does 1 + 1 add up to way more than two?

When you combine ESL and math!

Whether you are an ESL teacher adding math to your curriculum or a math teacher with ELL students in your classroom, you are in luck.

Here’s why: Teaching two subjects at once isn’t the juggling act it sounds like.

In fact, if you have the tools you need to succeed, teaching math and ESL together can be an incredibly rewarding experience, both for you and for your students.

The Approachable Guide to Teaching Math in ESL Classes

Why Teach Math in Your ESL Classes

The idea of teaching both ESL and math at the same time might seem daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. In fact, many experts agree that teaching another subject is a great way to enhance ESL teaching.

Content and Language Integrated Learning, also known as CLIL, is a major feature of European instruction and is at the heart of teaching math in your ESL classes. CLIL programs are designed to integrate both language and content learning such that both the content and the language are acquired simultaneously by the student.

Experts and CLIL supporters say that teaching another subject in English, like math or history, rather than teaching straight English, is a great way to improve proficiency in English.

The literature surrounding CLIL details the ways in which language is used in CLIL contexts to learn as well as to communicate, something that it is very important to be mindful of as an ESL math teacher.

Pointers for Teaching Math to ESL Students

No matter what level you are teaching, it’s good to remember a few basic rules:

  • Teach to what your students know, either ESL-wise or math-wise. In other words, use words that your students already know when introducing a new math concept, or review concepts that you know your students know when introducing new English vocabulary.

As much as possible, try to avoid introducing new math concepts and new vocabulary at the same time. If this is unavoidable, do so slowly and be sure to spend an adequate amount of time covering all of the new material.

  • Speak out loud as you work through the math, explaining what you are doing as you do it, and using the same vocabulary each time whenever possible. For example, say, “I’m adding all of the integers in the ones column. I’m carrying the 1…” This allows students access to the words that they need to solve problems and to explain where they went wrong if needed.
  • Use visual aids whenever possible. These could be pictures, blocks, diagrams… be creative!
  • Invite students to participate, ask questions and solve problems themselves as part of the class. The more your students can participate during instruction, the more capable they will be as independent workers during homework assignments, quizzes and tests.

If classes get a little heavy, some fun learning videos and educational content from FluentU always go a long way!

FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons.

For a much-needed break from math and English class, be sure to find some videos for the students. But not to worry, with interactive quizzes and flashcards, the learning will continue!  

How to Teach Math to Beginner, Intermediate and Advanced ESL Learners

One of the major issues of teaching math in English class, however, is that math and English levels do not always line up. When you are working within a CLIL structure, often math and English link up fairly well, but if, for example, you have an ELL learner in your mainstream class, you might have to work to accommodate the level of your students.

The following examples assume that your ESL math learners are in a situation similar to that of a CLIL structure, which is to say, their math and English levels line up. However, some of these examples can be adapted for an ELL situation, depending on your creativity.

Teaching Math to ESL Beginners

Beginner ESL math should begin with a short, straight vocabulary lesson. After all, students will need to have access to certain vocabulary words in order to solve even the most basic of problems.

Introduce this vocabulary as early as possible, for example, with a traditional vocab lesson structure, and be sure to come back to it often. You may even want to post often-used words somewhere on your classroom wall for easy access.

Key vocabulary for beginners

  • Number words, including cardinal (three) and ordinal (third) forms
  • Words related to basic mathematical operations:
    • Addition, add, sum, plus
    • Subtraction, subtract, difference, minus
    • Multiplication, multiply, product, times
    • Division, divide, quotient
    • Equals

How to write and present basic math problems

Once your students have the words that they need, you can begin presenting basic math problems to them.

Consider writing your first problems using both the signs and the actual words for the operations involved, or invite your students to add one or the other. For example, a worksheet could include the following problem:

Four plus six equals

The student would then have to write out the problem as follows before solving it:

4 + 6 =

As students become more advanced, write the problems the opposite way, making the students responsible for transcribing the mathematical symbols into English words before solving the problem.

Math games and activities for beginners

Some of the best ways to reinforce the newly acquired skills of your students is with games and activities. Here are a few of our favorites:

  • Zip, Zap, Zop. This game is best used with factors, though creative teachers will find ways to use it with a variety of math skills. When used to remember factors, choose an integer—nine, for example—and have students count in a circle.

When a number with the number nine in it (such as 19 or 29) is said, the student who is supposed to say 19 (or 29) will instead say “Zip!” and point to another student, out of order. The counting then continues again.

In the same fashion, students landing on factors of nine, such as three, will say “Zap!” and students landing on numbers for which nine is a divisor, like 27, will say “Zop.”

  • Bugabaloo. This online math game with pictures can be a fun way to use computers in the classroom with younger learners, and it’s accessible, even for very early beginners in both math and ESL.
  • Math BINGO. Math BINGO is also a great online game for beginners. You can make math BINGO cards in your own classroom, with different integers in each of the boxes, and allow different students to be the caller. Just be sure that you check students’ work along the way, so that faulty math does not creep into this fun game.

Teaching Math to Intermediate ESL Learners

Take advantage of intermediate learners’ increasing levels in both math and English by using more English in the classroom. No longer simply numbers-related, math now becomes just as much about words.

Writing word problems for ESL learners

Word problems are perhaps the best way to allow ESL math learners to progress. After all, where better do English and math meet?

When writing word problems for ESL learners or modifying pre-existing word problems for ESL learners, bear a few key rules in mind:

  • Keep sentences simple. The math is complicated enough; ESL learners will have a much easier time solving problems if the ideas are presented in simple, declarative sentences.

For example, instead of saying, “If Farmer John has three pigs and two sheep, and both of the sheep have a lamb, how many animals does he have on the farm?” Try, “Farmer John has three pigs, two sheep and two baby sheep (lambs). How many animals are on the farm?”

  • Offer your students a list of key words. For example, give them a worksheet, having them associate words with the four primary operations:

Addition: sum, plus, and, with, add

Subtraction: minus, difference, lose, remove, take away

Multiplication: times, product, by, multiply, groups

Division: divide, quotient, of, divide

Math games and activities for intermediate learners

Here are some great activities to try with intermediate learners, both in the classroom and for homework.

  • Creating word problems. Once students have learned about word problems, try helping them write and illustrate their own!
  • Matching game. This geometry matching game is a great way for intermediate learners to brush up on their definitions.
  • Partner draw. Increase intermediate students’ spatial awareness by having students draw a picture and hide it from their partner. Any picture can be used, but encourage students to use geometrical shapes that they know the names of, such as square, rectangle, circle and triangle.

A student may choose to draw a house and a yard with these shapes. Once the drawing is completed, each student describes the picture that he or she drew, using words that both students know. For example, “Draw a square in the center of the page with 4-inch sides, about 1 inch from the bottom. Draw an isosceles triangle on top, with the longest side adjacent to the top edge of the square.”

As the student describes his or her picture, his or her partner attempts to replicate it. Encourage students to use words like “parallel,” “perpendicular,” “at a right angle to,” “equilateral,” “diameter” and any other geometrical words that you may have introduced in class.

Teaching Math to Advanced ESL Learners

Teaching math to advanced ESL learners can be a real joy. Once the advanced level is reached, logic and language interact in such a way as to give students the tools to begin to really think in English.

Theory and logic-related math for advanced learners

As advanced students begin working on more advanced word problems in English, you can begin introducing some more linguistic elements, particularly with relative clauses. For example:

In six years, Carl’s father will be twice as old as Carl will be next year. When Carl’s age is added to his father’s age, the total is 42. How old are Carl and his father?

These sorts of problems force students to understand all of the information presented before they can even begin, and also help students to work with algebraic equations.

Once your ESL students are at an advanced level, you can use nearly any math resource with them. Just make sure to always provide them with the tools that they need. For example, while many languages use a variation of Latin terms when it comes to algebraic and geometric vocabulary, it’s always a good idea to go through the vocab before beginning a unit pertaining to either one of these topics.

Activities for advanced ESL math learners

  • Interesting number facts. Allow advanced learners to use these math facts as a combination reading comprehension and math activity.
  • Prisoner hat puzzle. This hat problem is more logic than math related, but it can be a fun problem to work on as a group.
  • Permutations. These exercises are excellent for introducing permutations.

And as always, be sure to let the level of your students dictate your lessons as much as possible. If you realize that students are already adept at simple word problems, offer them some more advanced ones to tackle. If you realize that the vocabulary of some of your students is lacking, try some vocab exercises before moving on to more advanced math.

By allowing English and math knowledge to build upon one another in the classroom, your experience—and that of your ESL students—will only be richer.

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