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

Teaching two subjects at once isn’t the juggling act it sounds like.

As long as you have the tools you need to succeed, teaching math and ESL together can be an incredibly rewarding experience—both for you and your students.


Why Teach Math in Your ESL Classes?

The idea of teaching ESL and math at the same time might seem daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. In fact, experts often agree that teaching another subject is an effective 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 teaching another subject in English, like math or history (rather than teaching just English), is a great way to improve proficiency in the language.

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

General Pointers for Teaching Math to ESL Students

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

  • Teach based on what your students know. In other words, use words your students already know when introducing a new math concept, or review concepts your students are already familiar with when teaching new English vocabulary. As much as possible, avoid introducing new math concepts and new vocabulary at the same time. If you can’t avoid this, do so slowly and be sure to spend an adequate amount of time covering all of the new material.
  • Talk about the new concepts out loud. As you work through the math, explain what you’re doing as you do it, and use the same vocabulary each time whenever possible. For example, you can say, “I’m adding all of the integers in the ones column. I’m carrying the 1 …” This allows students to access the words they need to solve problems and explain where they went wrong if needed.
  • Use visual aids if they help. These could be pictures, blocks or diagrams. Be creative!
  • Invite students to participate. Ask them to answer questions and solve problems by themselves as much as they can. The more your students can participate during class, the more they can work on the problems on their own during homework assignments, quizzes and tests.

Whenever 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 your students. Don’t worry about wasting time: with interactive quizzes and flashcards, the learning will continue!  

How to Teach Math to ESL Beginners

Start with key vocabulary for beginners

Beginner ESL math should begin with a short and straightforward vocabulary lesson. After all, your students need to fully understand these words to solve even the most basic of problems.

Introduce this vocabulary as early as possible, and be sure to come back to it often. You may even want to post oft-used words somewhere on your classroom wall for easy access, such as:

  • 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

Write problems using both the signs and words for the operations involved first, then do it the other way around

You can do this yourself, 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 before solving the problem.

Use math games and activities suitable for beginners

Some of the best ways to reinforce your students’ newly acquired skills include games and activities. Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Zip, Zap, Zop. For example, if you’re teaching 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’s supposed to say 19 (or 29) will instead say “Zip!” and point to another student. The counting then continues again. Similarly, 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. It’s also very accessible for complete beginners in both math and ESL.
  • Math BINGO. Math BINGO is another great game for beginners. You can make math BINGO cards in your classroom with different integers in each of the boxes, and allow different students to be the caller. Just be sure you check students’ work along the way, so faulty math doesn’t creep into this fun game.

How to Teach Math to Intermediate ESL Learners

At this stage, you can level up the vocabulary you use with your students, and use words as much as numbers.

Give your students a list of keywords

For example, you can give them a worksheet and have 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

Use simple, declarative sentences for word problems

Math is complicated enough on its own. Your ESL students 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?,” say, “Farmer John has three pigs, two sheep and two baby sheep (lambs). How many animals are on the farm?”

Help your intermediate learners visualize the math with games

Some exercises your students can do in this vein include:

  • Illustrating word problems. Once students have mastered word problems, try helping them write and illustrate their own!
  • Matching game. This geometry matching game is a fantastic way for intermediate learners to brush up on their definitions.
  • Drawing with a partner. Increase your intermediate students’ spatial awareness by having them draw a picture and hide it from their partner. Any picture can be used, but encourage them to use geometrical shapes 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 they drew, using words 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 their picture, their partner will attempt to replicate it. Encourage students to use words like “parallel,” “perpendicular,” “at a right angle to,” “equilateral,” “diameter” and any other geometrical words you may have introduced in class.

How to Teach Math to Advanced ESL Learners

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

Emphasize theory and logic-related math

As advanced students begin working on more complex word problems in English, you can begin introducing linguistic elements with relative clauses, such as:

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.

Start to use resources used in standard math classes

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 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 of these topics.

Don’t neglect the fun

Just because your students are now at the advanced level doesn’t mean you can no longer inject games and creativity into your lessons.

You can still make use of activities like:

  • Interesting number facts. Let your advanced learners use these math facts to combine reading comprehension in English with their newly acquired numerical skills.
  • 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.


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 more advanced ones to tackle. If 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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