How to Support Multilingual Learners in Math

STEMscopes Staff | Published  February 22, 2023

If you’re a curriculum leader or math teacher, you are probably facing the challenge of how to support multilingual learners in math class. You are not alone. In fact, 10.4 percent of public school students in the United States were English learners (ELs) in the fall of 2019. 

These students are not only tackling math skills and learning to think through math problems like your other students but also doing it in a new language.

Meeting their needs adds a layer of complexity to schools already challenged by learning loss from the pandemic and low math scores on standardized and district-level assessments.

In this blog, we’ll unpack some of the issues around teaching math to multilingual learners. Then we’ll look at some techniques and approaches to teaching multilingual learners that can help all students as they learn the language of math.


Teacher and pupils working at desk together at the elementary school


What’s a “multilingual learner”? 

You may be more familiar with the term “English language learner” or ELL. These are students who speak another language at home and are learning to speak English at the same time as they are learning content and skills at school.

Many states and federal agencies use “English language learner” (ELL) or “English learner” (EL) in their regulations and policies. You may also see the terms English Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) or English as a Second Language (ESL).

Today many educators are adopting the new term “multilingual learner” to cover a broader spectrum of students coming from different backgrounds and situations. NSTA’s highly inclusive definition is:

Multilingual learners are students who are developing proficiency in multiple languages. This includes students learning English as an additional language in school (often referred to as "English learners" or "English language learners").

Some of these students may present with moderate proficiency in conversational English but not formal English writing and speaking skills. Others may be just embarking on their English learning journey. They may or may not have had formal math instruction in their country of origin, and if they have, it may not have followed the same stages that a US math curriculum typically follows. 

The bottom line is that there is no single profile of an ML. As a math teacher, you must assess each child for their current level of proficiency in both math and language comprehension and production. 

Why is math especially challenging for MLs?

It’s common to say that “Math is a universal language,” but this is only the case after you have learned the language of math. If you think of math as having a language of its own, this means that multilingual learners are learning a new language (math) IN a new language (English), so they can then learn new mathematical concepts.

It’s no wonder that math presents particular challenges to multilingual learners!

Math teacher Kristen Vibas, in her teaching blog A Walk in the Chalk, explains that there are three tiers of vocabulary: basic vocabulary, “grade level” vocabulary, and content-specific vocabulary.

Native English speakers arrive in the math classroom proficient in basic vocabulary and actively learning grade-level vocabulary in other content areas in school. For those children, the math teacher can focus on teaching math-specific vocabulary.  

For multilingual learners or ELLs, however, Vibas says,

There is a LOT of language involved in math, and for students who are new to the country, this poses a lot of obstacles. Not only do we teach grade level math concepts to our students, but we also need to teach the language of math. ... In classrooms with beginning ELLs, vocabulary is one of the main focuses of instruction. Terms from all three levels need to be explicitly taught.

Another challenge is that MLs can get sidelined in the math classroom, says teacher Kanushri Wadhwa.

Studies have found that while European- and Asian-background students often get positioned as mathematically competent, ELL students of other backgrounds often get cast in marginal roles within the classroom.

The result can be twofold.

First, MLs who do not participate fully in the classroom and do not get the chance to practice communicating their mathematical thinking or using formal mathematical language, do not become proficient in grade-level math skills.

And, at a psychological level, ML students come to view themselves as not being mathematically competent. The combination of gaps in skills and poor self-image creates a problem that is compounded as the student moves through the grade levels. 


7 ways to support multilingual learners

Many math teachers wrestling with the challenge of teaching math to multilingual learners are generous about sharing their tips and techniques, as well as their perspectives on working with these students.

We’ve distilled some of the best of these approaches into seven broad categories of strategies for teaching math to multilingual learners.


1. Support and expect mathematical competence in your ML students 

The goal here is to make sure MLs are included in the conversation and given a full opportunity to participate, with the confidence and expectation that they will be able to demonstrate their mathematical thinking.

An important foundation for creating this kind of classroom experience for MLs is examining your own behaviors to ensure that you are not unintentionally sidelining these students or applying lower expectations to them.

There are various practical approaches to putting this aspiration into action.

Here are a few:

  • Encourage MLs to describe their mathematical thinking in diverse ways, including gestures, drawings, and graphics. 
  • Don’t stop them to correct their English—focus on the content of their ideas.
  • Revoice, ask questions, and use repetition to model formal language when discussing MLs’ contributions. (This will help the ML student learn to express themselves while focusing on their mathematical thinking rather than their communication skills.)
  • To encourage communication about their mathematical thinking process, don’t use yes/no questions: ask questions that require more complex thought and a more complex answer. 
  • Be prepared to modify your own teaching behavior, in particular, taking a strategic, ML-oriented approach to teacher talk and extending wait time, so MLs have time to formulate both their thinking and their response.
  • Draw on any resources available to help MLs participate: other teachers, translation services, other students who can help translate, and technology. 
  • Ask MLs about how they have been taught math (especially arithmetic) in their home country, and invite them to describe that system. Model an attitude of curiosity and appreciation of cultural differences for your other students. 

2. Encourage “low-stakes” participation and practice in the classroom 

Create activities and prompts that encourage MLs to actively participate and communicate without the pressure of speaking in front of the whole class.

  • Pose some questions that can be answered with nonverbal responses, like thumbs up/thumbs down or drawings.
  • Use prompts and sentence frames to guide student responses, designing them for different proficiency levels.
  • Solicit choral responses from the class that MLs can easily join without being singled out.
  • When asking questions, rephrase them in multiple ways to model different ways to say the same thing. Offer at least one highly simplified version.
  • All students will learn a concept better when they have to explain it to another student, whether in English or their home language. Give all your students many opportunities to talk with each other to practice using their new math vocabulary as they explain their understanding.
  • Use small groups (3–4 students maximum) to discuss and solve problems. Group students with a mix of language and math skills so that MLs can hear other students using math vocabulary and practice speaking in a smaller group.
  • Similarly, use partner talk and pair MLs with non-ML students.
  • Schedule independent work, so MLs can work on problems at their own pace, and you will have the opportunity to circulate and help struggling students.

3. Teach vocabulary before teaching math concepts

This is the most frequently recommended strategy for teaching math to multilingual learners. Fortunately, it is one that will benefit all students. 

  • When preparing to teach a new concept, consider the new content-specific vocabulary students will need, as well as vocabulary from the other two tiers described earlier. Devote one or more lessons exclusively to teaching all three tiers of vocabulary and reviewing vocabulary from previous lessons that will support the new concept.
  • ML students often need to be explicitly taught math words that have multiple meanings in English, for example, ruler, mean, volume, odd, even, and table.
  • Have each student create a math notebook that they can use as a reference for vocabulary throughout the year. Many teachers use a visual framework like the KIM (Key word, Important information, Memory clue) approach or Frayer model for all new vocabulary included in the student notebook.
  • Use a variety of tactics to help students learn vocabulary in advance of each new concept, including drawings and pictures, manipulatives, sentence frames, short videos, and physical activities and games.
  • Create a classroom word wall or multiple interchangeable “walls.” Some may stay up all year, others just for a particular set of lessons. 

4. Present math concepts visually first, then use new vocabulary

When presenting math concepts, use as many visuals as you can—whether you’re good at drawing or not! Kristen Vibas says, “I really wish I could draw! ... It’s always a challenge, but my students get a kick out of my efforts.” 

  • In addition to your own drawings, use charts, graphs, and images from the world around you.
  • Use manipulatives like cubes, tiles, measuring tools, food, or dice to present the concepts.
  • Find charts, foldables, and other visuals for the students to add to their notebooks so they have something they can refer to.
  • Introduce concepts with short-format videos, like NumbeRock on YouTube.
  • Get kids up and active. For example, use games, clapping, a “numbers hunt” or “geometric shape hunt” around the classroom, or a challenge to measure things around the school. 

5. Focus specifically on the language of word problems

Word problems mirror the way math is encountered in the real world. They often take any math learner some thought to understand. As such, they pose a particular challenge to MLs.

  • Regularly work with students on the language of word problems, helping MLs and non-MLs alike to figure out what’s important in the language of the problem and reinforcing vocabulary.
  • Have students use highlighters, WikiStix, sticky notes, and other visual aids to help them learn how to break down the language of word problems. This tactic will help visual learners, as well.
  • Challenge ML students to create their own word problems using setting and situations they are familiar with.

6. Connect with real-world experiences

For any student, connecting science and math concepts to the world they know and observe makes the subject come alive. It is particularly important to engage MLs with experiences that are familiar and meaningful to them.

  • Find out what interests your ML students in particular and incorporate those interests into word problems and activities.  
  • Use foods, names, holidays, and other references to their culture in word problems.
  • Choose visuals and manipulatives that are relevant to their life experiences.
  • For older grades, work with them to develop multi-unit projects about issues that concern them in school or their community.

7. Draw on your resources

You are not alone! Classroom teachers and districts all over the country are working hard to meet the needs of multilingual learners. 

  • Online: There are many resources, YouTube channels, and professional development seminars/webinars available.
  • In your district or school: there may be translation services, an ELL/ML specialist, or even an ELA specialist who can help your students.
  • In the community: There may be public and private organizations within the community that can help support you and your ML students.
  • Students: Consider drawing on the translation skills and advice of other students who are further along in their language learning process than the students you are teaching. And consult your students themselves! They have much to tell you about their culture, how they have been taught math previously, what they need, and what works for them.

Reset: A fresh perspective on teaching math 

Developing new techniques for teaching math to multilingual learners has the potential to reshape the way teachers and all students approach, think, and learn math.

Many of these approaches will benefit students of all kinds, not only multilingual learners. Students who are visual learners will benefit from a greater emphasis on visual representation, while kinesthetic learners will connect with manipulatives and hands-on activities.

Most students will increase their problem-solving skills by learning to carefully parse the components of a word problem to apply what they know about math to a problem in the real world.

Taking an attitude toward MLs that is open and curious about their cultures and the differences in the way math is taught in their countries of origin and celebrating the richness that they bring to the class will also contribute to a culture of inclusion in the classroom.

And encouraging other students to help their ML classmates to become proficient in the languages of both English and math sets an expectation around diversity and inclusion that will have an impact well beyond their understanding of the math content. 


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