How to Teach Math to ELLs
by Dr. Jim Ewing

The first step to teaching math to ELLs is to change their positive math mindset (Boaler, 2016; Ewing, 2020).

7-Strategies to Develop Math Mindsets for ELLs

1. We can facilitate students to have math mindsets by being passionate about math ourselves.

I was a teacher for 25 years in both Spain the United States. In 2009, my class in Spain came in 31st place in World Math Day—the biggest online math competition. The next year we came in 18th place. How did we do it? It wasn’t because my students were smart. We did it through hard work. My students were passionate about math partly because I am passionate about math.

One reason that I am a professor today is that I had a professor thirty years ago who inspired me. He had so much passion about math education that I too wanted to be a professor. Just as Dr. McGowan inspired me, we can inspire all students to have math mindsets by having math mindsets ourselves.

All students will benefit from teachers having positive mindsets. However, this is especially important for ELLs. When I learned Spanish the first time, since I didn’t comprehend all of the vocabulary, Ifocused on non-verbal cues to understand what was being said to me. Similarly, ELLs tend to pay more attention to non-verbal cues such as teachers having positive mindsets. If we are passionate about math, our ELLs will be passionate and develop math mindsets.

2. Instead of calling students smart, we should praise our students for their effort.

Boaler (2016) says that many people believe that there is a math gene and some are good at math and some aren’t.This belief is harmful because the students who believe that they aren’t good, give up. Students who have been told that they are talented in math, may be afraid to take risks because they don’t want to lose that ranking. Calling students smart reinforces the belief that we don’t have to work hard at math—we either have it or we don’t. Alternatively, we want our students to believe that if they work hard, they can be successful—all of them!

It is imperative to recognize ELLs for their effort. After all, they are learning math in another language. ELLs can learn both math and English at the same time, but we must remember to praise them for this effort. Instead of telling them that they are smart, we can tell ELLs that if they keep working hard, they will succeed.

3. Mistakes are learning opportunities.

All students benefit from being in a safe environment, but this is imperative for ELLs. We want our students to take chances and love math. This will not happen if students are afraid to make mistakes. Imagine how scary it would be to do math in another language.

I observed a pre-service teacher change an ELLs’ math mindset. When she first met the boy, he told her that he didn’t like math. He was afraid to make mistakes, but whenever the boy did, she smiled and asked him what he had learned. As you can imagine, over time the boy viewed mistakes as learning experiences and was more open to taking risks.

4. We should strive to be culturally relevant and include what we learn about ELLs' communities in our math curriculum.

If we select word problems about Maria buying dresses at the mall, some students may be at a disadvantage. It is challenging enough to learn math in English, but it is even harder if the ELLs’ culture is not included. It is not enough to change word problems to include ELLs’ names; we also have to learn about our students’ culture to make our math instruction more appealing for all.

5. Calling on ELLs to share helps them develop their math concepts and develop proficiency in English.

There are a variety of strategies to encourage ELLs to share with their peers, depending on ELLs’ proficiency level. Using manipulatives is important for all students, but can help ELLs both comprehend concepts better if their peers use manipulatives in explanations and can also help ELLs explain themselves better. Another strategy to encourage ELLs to share is to allow opportunities to work in small groups. It is less intimidating to share in small group settings then whole group. After sharing in small groups, ELLs may be ready to share to the whole class. A friend can translate math strategies or simply support ELLs by standing next to an ELL as he/she shares to the class. Sharing not only makes math more fun for ELLs as they feel a sense of belonging, but also boosts their English proficiency.

6. It is important to make ELLs feel comfortable.

If we want our ELLs to take risks in math, then we have to make them feel comfortable. We can make all students feel comfortable by creating class community. One of my pre-service teachers wrote that the ELLs in her class would improve in math if the classroom community were developed (Ewing, 2016).If ELLs feel a sense of belonging they will be more likely to take chances and have a math mindset.

It is also important to consider where ELLs sit. One of my pre-service teachers purposely sat her ELLs next to students that would be supportive and this improved their interactions in math (Ewing, 2017). Ironically, if our ELLs are talking more in class, they are improving their math concepts and developing their English proficiency.

7. We must have high expectations for all students. If we meet their needs, ELLs can engage in rigorous mathematics.

If teachers believe that ELLs will not be successful in subjects, including math, this message will be received by ELLs and affect their mindsets. Unfortunately, math is often used to separate students. There are teachers who have the belief that some groups of students are capable of doing math and others aren’t.

I have witnessed many with low expectations for ELLs in math. One pre-service teacher thought that the best way to teach ELLs was to give them less work (Ewing, 2016). This pre-service teacher was not referring to any student in particular, but she had low expectations for ELLs. When we provide ELLs access to the content then we can engage them in math at a deep level.