Teaching Math Vocabulary to English Language Learners is critical
One of the myths that drove us to choose mathematics as a topic for our ELL project was the misconception of how students should have less difficulty with math because it is a universal language.

We found out how a low proficiency in a second language has a significative impact on learning math and that ELLs stumble on many things when they try to comprehend new math concepts or express their understanding.

ELLs require extra help to be able to make the connection between mathematical operators and numbers (Ballantyne, K.G., Sanderman, A.R., Levy, J., 2008, p.51). Strategies which can be used to teach math vocabulary according to Rothenberg and Fisher in Murrey, D. (2008, p.147)are summarized as follows:

Math Vocabulary Teaching Strategies

- Promoting comprehensive input by using adequate speech, gestures and scaffolding techniques. This also includes teaching words with different meanings, use of cognates and introducing vocabulary after the students have learned the concept.
- Contextualizing instruction by teaching academic language with realia support, manipulatives and graphic organizers when possible.
- Creating a low - anxiety learning environment through well planned lessons.
- Engaging in meaningful learning activities through real-world context tasks and discussions.

To have a glimpse of the effective use of strategies in a math class setting click on the next example.

It is very important to have ELLs understand the math concept first and then build their new vocabulary. It is also very enlightening for them to see different meanings to one word, especially if one is of common English and the other an important math definition. Words with different definitions are very powerful while teaching ELLs and there are many resources and tools to implement such as the use of a Visual Thesaurus. To support vocabulary development teachers can incorporate strategies such as Rebus Techniques which are more thoroughly explained in the Connected Mathematics Project from Michigan State University along with the use of graphic organizers, Venn diagrams, concept maps, vocabulary charts and tree diagrams.

The approach of teaching cognates to students is widely recommended because it allows the ELL to make a strong personal connection with new vocabulary. To realize how a math concept can be defined by two similar words in two languages is an “ah ha!” you will appreciate from the students. You can read more about strategies for math teachers focused on ELLs on the Texas Comprehensive Center website which is another strong example of how education institutions across the U.S. have created projects to research and support the education system with the goal to better serve students that are in learning English as a second language.


Ballantyne, K.G., Sanderman, A.R., Levy, J. (2008). Educating English language learners: Building teacher capacity. Washington, DC: National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition. Retrieved February 28, 2012 from http://www.ncela.gwu.edu/files/uploads/3/EducatingELLsBuildingTeacherCapacityVol1.pdf

Murrey, D. (2008). Differentiating instruction in mathematics for English language learners. Mathematics Teaching in the Middle School, v14 n3 (p146-153) National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. Retrieved February 27, 2012 from
For more information on vocabulary see these websites:

Connected Mathematics Project from Michigan State University http://connectedmath.msu.edu/index.shtml

Texas Comprehensive Center Website: http://txcc.sedl.org/