Strategies to Engage Students in ESL Math Lessons

Strategies to Engage Students in ESL Math Lessons
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English language students must not only learn English at school, but they must also master other subjects at the same time. ESL math lessons can be adapted to meet the needs of ESL students and help them not only learn math but pick up some new English language vocabulary at the same time.


Let students touch objects related to their ESL math lessons whenever possible. Blocks, beans, counters and anything else students can hold in their hands can be powerful tools to help them master math concepts. Repeat numbers in English as the students count out the appropriate number of counters for an addition or subtraction problem.For example, use beans to show that Anna has six (6) cookies and Mark has nine (9) in an addition story problem.

One idea, suggested by the Center for Applied Linguistics, is “[w]hen working on estimation of lengths,. . .students can use both standard and metric measuring tools to find things that measure approximately one centimeter, one decimeter, one meter, one inch, one foot, or one yard. They can then use these items to estimate the length of other objects in the classroom, check their estimates with the actual tools, and use calculators to find the percentage of error in their estimations.”

Vocabulary Wall

Write key phrases students will encounter on a daily basis in math on a large poster. Put these phrases up on the wall in the classroom in a prominent place where students can refer to them. Phrases used often in word problems, order of operations, geometry or algebra terms, for example, can all be put up on the poster. These can help students identify what types of problems they are working with and how to solve them.

Talk Aloud

Have students practice speaking in English by working in partners or in small groups as they practice how to do a particular type of math problem. Encourage them to use math phrases as much as possible as they explain the process aloud. Ask students to repeat a problem or process back to you after you explain it. Ask questions about the problem or the lesson to ensure all of the students understand what you have taught.

Modify Word Problems

Rewrite word problems using fewer and easier words so that your ESL students can practice both their math and language skills without being stuck on what a particular phrase or word means as they read the problem. Keep the sentences short and to the point. Take out extra detail that is not needed to convey the gist of the problem.

Make it Real

Apply mathematical concepts you are teaching to the real world for the students. The Center for Applied Linguistics suggests, “…in a lesson on calculating percentages, younger students might calculate the percentage of tax on a bicycle, while older students may use their pay stubs to calculate percentages of various categories of withholding.” Make the lessons pertain to an experience outside the classroom to which the students can relate.

Connect with Other Subjects

Talk to the students’ other teachers about collaboration. Ask what they are learning to connect what they are learning there with math class. For example, have students work on graphs in math if they are also using graphs to compare countries’ demographic statistics in geography.