11 Strategies for Teaching English Learners in Math

Tips for Engaging ELs in Math, Science, and More

October is Celebrating the Bilingual Child Month! We’re celebrating the achievements of bilingual children across the country, and the dedication of the educators who teach them.

  1. Build a classroom environment that ensures success

One of the best things you can do for a young English learner is to create a safe, thoughtful, flexible space in which their learning needs are addressed and met. The classroom absolutely must be a place where teachers have the time and patience to slow down when language variation makes concepts more difficult than they would be otherwise. Most importantly, learning spaces should reflect a great degree of respect for English learners, an appreciation of their perspectives, and a eagerness to include them in all facets of the collective learning journey: socially, emotionally, and intellectually.

Tip from the Express Guide: “Assign helper duties to your English learners to ensure they feel part of the class.”

2. Build on prior knowledge

Educators should take steps to gain a full understanding of the student’s prior knowledge: what academic language are they familiar with? What mathematical equation-solving strategies, history content, or science concepts have they already mastered? Tools like KWL charts (“Know, Want to Know, Learned”) are great approaches to helping a child provide educators with organized insights into a child’s previous knowledge. From there, educators can begin to guide students towards reaching their full potential.

Tip from the Express Guide: “Give English learners a list of vocabulary words before they use the words in the lessons. Provide a dictionary to help students learn the words.”

3. Incorporate culture at every opportunity

Intercultural interactions are a two-way street. In order to create a respectful learning environment for your English learners, it’s important to both recognize (and encourage your other students to recognize) the attributes of their cultures, and to take the time to acknowledge and compensate for moments where a cultural gap might create uneven learning opportunities. These moments could be hard to identify: often, texts and assessments assume that children have some background knowledge that, in truth, is actually culturally variant. With respect and care, such cultural awareness can establish a learning environment in which their cultural difference is not a disadvantage, but an asset.

Tip from the Express Guide: “Include relevant examples whenever possible. Comparing situations to those in another culture may help.”

4. Give visual clues

English learners are a truly impressive group of students: every day, they attempt to reach their greatest academic potential despite a linguistic disconnect between themselves and the resources available to them. To support ELs, teachers can give them a great advantage by integrating non-linguistic tools into a lesson. Visual resources can help students to work through complicated problems, understand foundational vocabulary, and organize their thoughts. These tools will also prevent them from falling behind in other subject areas while they work to improve their biliteracy.

Tip from the Express Guide: “Use graphic organizers, such as Venn diagrams, to build visual associations.”

Download the Express Guide for examples and support →

5. Simplify grammatical structures

Like cultural awareness, it’s also important to engage in an active linguistic awareness. Consider the grammatical complexity of your sentences, and work to make your verbal message more accessible for English learners. It’s important to do this respectfully: ELs should never be treated as if they are less intelligent, or spoken to in an insulting manner. They need educators who are mindful of prior knowledge, language fluency, and view their linguistic background for what it is: a potentially remarkable asset.

Tip from the Express Guide: “Repeat, repeat, repeat. Use the same sentence structure when giving directions.”

6. Teach vocabulary while teaching the lesson

With any group of students, it’s important to consider how cross-curricular learning objectives can be incorporated into your lesson, and to seize those opportunities when they arise. But with ELs, taking advantage of every opportunity to incorporate vocabulary practice into any subject is crucial to helping them maximize their time in the classroom. Language spans every subject — and while even English learners with the most limited English fluency might be star mathematicians, their lack of familiarity with vocabulary could impact their performance on assessments.

Tip from the Express Guide: “Create an environment where students feel safe to make a mistake.”

7. Teach for depth of understanding

When working to provide ELs with a foundational understanding of mathematics that will carry them into higher education and adult success, educators need to focus on establishing a deep, conceptual understanding of core mathematical competencies instead of rote memorization and a general overview. This approach requires a lot of patience: the goal is to establish clarity and a comprehensive understanding. It’s a matter of quality over quantity: when students can develop foundational skills, these understandings will be adaptable, flexible, and widely applicable.

Tip from the Express Guide: “Focus on learning a few concepts well to give English learners a greater opportunity for success.”

8. Teach study skills

Part of empowering ELs to succeed across the curriculum is teaching them not just what to learn, but how to learn. Study strategies are a key element of academic success for any learner: and for ELs, it just could be the leg up they need to keep pace with (and even surpass!) their peers. Guide them in the way they interact with texts, prepare for assessments, and collaborate with classmates. With the right tools, English learners are capable of mastering any subject.

Tip from the Express Guide: “Guide learners to use text resources: tables of contents, glossaries, indexes, captions, and stylized text.”

9. Use manipulatives

For many teachers, one of the best perks of being an educator is the opportunity to pivot in instruction, think outside of the box, and provide learners with alternative resources for content mastery. Tactile, visual, and concrete strategies for teaching and learning can be used to effectively teach abstract concepts, and to stimulate higher-thinking science and math. Working with manipulatives can help ELs gain comprehensive understandings of complex learning objectives by tapping into different parts of their cognitive functioning rather than strictly depending on language.

Tip from the Express Guide: “Encourage students to construct, graph, measure, and experiment.”

10. Inform and adapt instruction

Working with English learners requires a great deal of fluidity in both instruction and assessment. Since ELs will be coming into your classroom with vastly different prior learning experience and content gaps, coupled with varying language and cultural experiences, it’s important to be considerate of the way in which educators deliver content, monitor progress, and assess competency of skills. It’s also important to adapt according to those assessments: teachers can use the student data they collect from assessments to understand students and inform further instruction.

Tip from the Express Guide: “Allow students to show their knowledge in different ways, especially by using visual aids, graphs, and drawings.”

11. Use cooperative learning

Teachers of ELs should take advantage of every potential resource to enhance their learning and maximize time spent in the classroom. We’ve already talked about utilizing visual resources, adapting instruction based on prior knowledge and assessment data, and using tactile manipulatives to master abstract concepts. But we’ve yet overlooked one readily available resource: their peers! ELs can glean a great deal of collaborative skills, vocabulary acquisition, and social integration through group and paired work.

Tip from the Express Guide: “Use the buddy system to help learners work efficiently. English learners working cooperatively make substantial gains.”

To discover more about how you can support the English learners in your classroom across the curriculum, download the Express Guide from Number Worlds:

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