Studying mathematics in an English-medium school presents learners of English as an Additional Language (EAL) with a double cognitive whammy as they grapple with learning English and maths at the same time. Understanding maths is more than just knowing how to add and subtract; it also requires learners to use language to make sense of what they are studying, so that they can apply their maths knowledge in real life (Ramirez, 2020; Winsor, 2007). All learners need to be able to discuss their mathematical thinking in order to clarify and embed their understanding of new concepts. They also need to be able to use the language of maths effectively and apply the maths they have learnt in ways that are relevant to them for these to be meaningful. A language-rich environment with a focus on maths-specific language and everyday language associated with problem/solving will benefit all learners, and EAL learners in particular.
All four language skills are key to learning maths. It is reassuring to note that the skills we acquire when learning to read and write in a language also help to improve our maths ability (Ramirez, 2020). Learning a language and learning maths are comparable in three ways: learners need to be able to write in order to communicate their new learning; they typically learn in groups; and the learning is contextualised – in other words, it can be connected to real-life situations (Winsor, 2007).
Word problems, which are an integral part of teaching maths and increase in difficulty as learners move through their primary and secondary schooling, represent a significant ongoing challenge for EAL learners. These problems, however, offer the opportunity for learners to discuss and make sense of complex mathematical situations that are relevant to the world around them and thus, to increase their understanding of the maths involved and develop their critical thinking skills.
EAL learners need to be able to identify with the situations outlined in the word problems for them to be truly meaningful and support effective learning. This is sometimes a challenge, because of their different cultural backgrounds and experiences. They also need to be confident listeners and speakers, so they can express themselves in groups as they make sense of the problem and discuss possible solutions. In addition, their reading and writing skills are key to understanding instructions in order to undertake the correct task and then have sufficient vocabulary and knowledge of syntax and grammar to be able to complete it.
Providing a language-rich learning environment in the maths classroom, as well as additional support from EAL teachers and/or support staff, is likely to lessen the cognitive workload for EAL learners, and promote maths learning in meaningful ways.
First of all, actively teaching key ‘learning to learn’ strategies and how to work in groups, including useful language patterns that go with these activities, is time well spent. These strategies might include active listening, note-taking, turn-taking in discussions, encouraging other group members to participate, and clarifying strategies. This is something an EAL teacher or teaching assistant can introduce before the EAL learners reach the maths classroom, where these techniques can then be implemented and reinforced in an authentic setting.
Secondly, when formulating word problems, these should be framed, where possible, to reflect the real-world experiences of the students and, if possible, to resonate with how maths is used in their home situations. This could be informed by, for example, asking EAL learners to interview their parents/caregivers about how they use maths in their daily lives, and has the potential to increase student – and home – engagement. The learners’ survey results could be collated, depicted in graph form, and provide the basis for further word problems that the maths or EAL teacher could co-construct with the learners. This activity not only provides useful data for formulating word problems, but affords EAL learners an additional opportunity to develop their investigative skills and associated language structures, such as question forms.
Thirdly, EAL teachers can liaise with the maths teachers to identify the language comprehension and production knowledge their EAL learners require to access upcoming lesson content, and then front-load learners with the necessary vocabulary and language patterns.
To sum up, EAL learners facing the dual challenge of learning a new language and new maths concepts in that language need explicit and relevant support if they are to achieve at an appropriate cognitive level for their age. Teachers, of both EAL and maths, are encouraged to connect new maths learning to the EAL learners’ existing knowledge and provide multiple, low stakes opportunities for the learners to understand and practise the language they need to achieve in maths. This will, in turn, support EAL learners in their maths learning.
Ramirez, E. (2020). Supporting English Language Learners in Math During Distance Learning. Retrieved 21 March, 2022. Supporting English Language Learners in Math During Distance Learning – Getting Smart
Winsor, M.S. (2007). Bridging the Language Barrier in Mathematics. Mathematics Teacher, 101(5), 372-378.