Strategies to Engage English Language Learners in Math

Save Time by Being Proactive

First, thank you for reading this. I know how busy educators are–I was a teacher for 25 years and an administrator for eight. It was rewarding and also very stressful. As a professor, it has been stressful making all the challenges during this pandemic, so I can imagine how challenging it can be for teachers to meet the needs of English language learners (ELs).

The strategies here are designed to save teachers time. There has been lots of PD lately to train teachers to use technology, BUT very little on how to meet the needs of ELs. The goal is to save you time. That may sound crazy, but when we are more prepared, we have fewer problems to solve and it is more rewarding. Thus, you will learn valuable strategies that not many educators know are even aware of about meeting the needs of ELs in math.

If you Google “Math ELLs” my name comes up on the top. I share this with you because you are receiving information that not many know.

Taken from

Of course, we have to be careful with stereotypes because many ELs are excelling at math, but others are not. It is not that ELLs are not capable, they are, but as you know, there are so many challenges right now. ELs are twice as likely to be affected by poverty. Teachers are over-worked and many do not know how to meet the needs of ELs—especially in math.

We will learn four tools for meeting the needs of ELs in math: boosting math mindsets; providing access; developing language; and engaging in productive struggle.

So, kudos for being prepared and reading this. It gets better. If we are proactive with our students, it makes math more enjoyable. In other words, you will learn strategies to engage ELs so you don’t have to remedial work later, which will save you time. In fact, that will also boost ELs’ math mindsets. That will be our next tool.

4 Tools to Meet the Needs of ELs in Math

Tool #1: Boost Math Mindsets for ELs

Boaler’s (2016) bestseller book discusses the importance of boosting the math mindset of each student. Students should be passionate about math and believe that they can be successful if they work hard (Ewing, 2020). Not all ELLs learn the same way, but below are three strategies to boost ELLs’ math mindsets.

Use culturally relevant objects. Using manipulatives empowers ELLs by facilitating them to explain mathematical concepts (Maldonado, Turner, Dominguez, & Empson, 2009). Furthermore, we can choose objects and manipulatives that are culturally relevant for ELLs. For example, “frijoles” (beans) can be used as counters to engage Hispanic students (Ewing, 2020). 

Celebrate successful ELLs. ELLs will believe that they are capable in math if they see other people that look them doing math successfully. They need positive role models. After hearing about successful mathematicians similar to them, ELLs will believe that they too can be successful.

Offer opportunities to speak in their own language. In order to boost mindsets, ELLs have to enjoy doing math. Thus, we can occasionally allow them to solve problems in their own language. Of course we want them to learn English, but if we overcorrect them, they will withdraw and not enjoy doing math.

4 Tools to Meet the Needs of ELs in Math

Tool #2: Providing Authentic Access

Providing visuals is an example of providing ELs access, but it is not enough. We need to provide access that ELs can VISUALIZE. Yes, they need to visualize themselves in our math curriculum. In other words, if we provide ELs visuals about math they cannot relate to, that is not good enough. Below is a visual that Hispanic ELs may relate to.

Activities written by Math Distance Learning for ELLs from Teachers Pay Teachers

Of course, we have to be careful of the stereotypes, but many Hispanic ELs may be able to visualize the math problem above. For example, if we were to change the name of a word problem to Jaime goes to the mall to buy jeans. That is not enough. Above the word pancake is changed to “panqueque” which is a cognate (The words sound the same in both Spanish and English.) There is a visual of a pancake with jam, which is popular in many Latin countries, including Guatemala. Also, a sentence stem is provided so the ELs have access to the math content.

Notice that when we provide access to the content, we can engage our ELs in rigorous mathematics.

4 Tools to Meet the Needs of ELs in Math

Tool #3: Teaching Language

Not only do we need to boost ELs’ math mindsets and provide them access, we also need to develop their language Yes, in math class. How can we do this when we have so much content to cover?

Taken from my children’s book “Juan Jose, You Are Especial!”

There are many ways to develop ELs’ language, but let’s start with common practices that are generally not effective:

  1. Teachers talking too much. If ELs do not get chances to speak and listen to their peers, they will not develop their language.
  2. Calling on students to share in whole group conversations randomly using Popsicle sticks. This can raise ELs and other students’ anxiety.
  3. Ignoring students by asking volunteers to share. When the teacher asks for volunteers, ELs may need more time to translate and not raise their hands.

Instead of having whole group discussions that can be intimidating, it is much better to have students turn and talk and work in small groups.

As students are sharing, teachers can listen to ELs share. Then they can validate their thoughts and say something like, “Juan Jose, your peers would benefit from hearing your ideas. We are going to have a discussion now, would you like to share to the class?” Then the students can decide if they want to share or not. Maybe the students will decide they want to share with a friend. The teacher can also revoice the ELs’ ideas. For example, “Juan Jose says that ½  is bigger than ¼. Discuss Juan Jose’s idea.”

These are the steps mentioned above for developing language:

  1. Ask students to turn and talk or work in small groups.
  2. Listen and validate ELs’ answers.
  3. Tell them the class would appreciate hearing from them.
  4. Invite in private to share to the whole class.
  5. If the student does not want to share to the whole class, the teacher can revoice his/her idea.