The Challenges of Teaching Math to English Learners

by Rusty Bresser, Author, Math Solutions
October 18th, 2019

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Many educators share the misconception that because it uses symbols, mathematics is not associated with any language or culture and is ideal for facilitating the transition of recent immigrant students into English instruction. To the contrary, language plays an important role in learning mathematics. Teachers use language to explain mathematical concepts and carry out math procedures. While solving problems in mathematics, we often use specialized technical vocabulary (addition, subtraction, addend, sum). And researchers of mathematical learning have found that students can deepen their understanding of mathematics by using language to communicate and reflect on their ideas and cement their understandings. Classroom talk can cause misconceptions to surface, helping teachers recognize what students do and do not understand. When students talk about their mathematical thinking, it can help them improve their ability to reason logically.

The challenge of teaching math to English learners lies not only in making math lessons comprehensible to students but also in ensuring that students have the language needed to understand instruction and express their grasp of math concepts both orally and with written language.

The challenge of teaching math to English learners lies not only in making math lessons comprehensible to students but also in ensuring that students have the language needed to understand instruction and express their grasp of math concepts both orally and with written language. ELLs have the dual task of learning a second language and content simultaneously. For this reason, “it is critical to set both content and language objectives for ELLs. Just as language cannot occur if we only focus on subject matter, content knowledge cannot grow if we only focus on learning the English language” (Hill and Flynn 2006, 22).

English language learners are faced with some common obstacles when learning math. One challenge they face is unknown or misunderstood vocabulary. For example, they can become confused during a discussion if the mathematics vocabulary has different meanings in everyday usage, as with even, odd, and function. They also may be confused if the same mathematical operation can be signaled with a variety of mathematics terms, such as add, and, plus, sum, and combine. A word such as left—as in “How many are left?”—can be confusing when the directional meaning of the word is most commonly used in everyday English. The words sum and whole also can cause confusion because they have nonmathematical homonyms (some and hole).

A second obstacle is with an incomplete understanding of syntax and grammar. For example, math questions are often embedded in language that makes the problems unclear or difficult to comprehend.

Consider the following problem:

Samuel bought three bags of oranges with seven oranges in each bag.
How many oranges did he buy?

This word problem uses both the past and present tense of the irregular verb to buy in one question, which may cause difficulty for an English language learner, depending on the student’s English language proficiency.

Consider another problem:

Lisa gave a total of 12 treats to her cats.
She gave her large cat 2 more treats than she gave her small cat.
How many treats did she give to each cat?

Here, students need to understand or figure out the meanings of words such as total and treats. They also need to understand words that convey a mathematical relationship such as more . . . than. In addition, students need to infer that Lisa has only two cats.

English language learners typically experience difficulty understanding and therefore solving word problems, and this difficulty increases in the later grades of elementary school as the word problems become more linguistically and conceptually complex. Difficulty with grammar, syntax, and vocabulary lies in both understanding math instruction and having the ability to engage in discussions about math.

Many teachers use strategies to help students understand the content in their math lessons. Scaffolds for learning may include manipulatives, visuals, and graphics. These supports are all essential for building a cursory understanding of math concepts, but they may not provide students enough linguistic support for them to discuss their thinking, which would lead to a deeper understanding of content.

The challenge for teachers is to focus on math concepts and the academic language that is specific to mathematics.

For example, let’s say that a student’s understanding of polygons is based on a two-column chart with drawings that distinguish polygons from shapes that are not polygons. Once the chart is put away, the student may not have internalized enough of the linguistic elements of the lesson to be able to continue her learning in subsequent lessons on polygons. Having the language to talk about math concepts is crucial to developing an understanding of those concepts.

Classroom discussions about math have been shown to deepen students’ conceptual understanding. These discussions are a critical aspect of the development of language and content, providing a setting for English language learners to negotiate meaning in daily instructional interactions. However, if the language needed to engage in these discussions is not made explicit, ELLs are less likely to benefit from mathematical discussions and can fall further behind their peers.

The challenge for teachers is to focus on math concepts and the academic language that is specific to mathematics. Teachers must be cognizant of the linguistic demands of their lessons and how they will address those demands explicitly during instruction so that ELLs can fully participate.


Hill, Jane D., and Kathleen M. Flynn. 2006. Classroom Instruction That Works with English Language Learners. Alexandria, VA: Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Rusty Bresser is a lecturer and supervisor of teacher education at the University of California at San Diego. He has been an educator for more than thirty-five years and is interested in issues of equity and social justice in the areas of mathematics and science education. Rusty is the author of numerous professional learning articles and books. He is a recipient of the Barbara and Paul Saltman Distinguished Teaching Award.


Need help addressing the needs of the ELL students in your school? Our new course, Supporting English Learners in Math, offers instructional support and a lesson design process that supports differentiation for the varied levels of English learners in classrooms. 

This post is excerpted from Supporting English Language Learners in Math Class, K-2 by Rusty Bresser, Kathy Melanese, and Christine Sphar.


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