How do I support EAL learners with mathematical language?

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Introduction to ‘EAL Teaching through the Learning Village’ workshop
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How do I support EAL learners with mathematical language?

Author: Gemma Fanning, EAL Specialist

The language of Maths is often considered a language of its own – and this can sometimes present a difficulty for EAL students when they are learning English. NALDIC explains that if EAL learners are not supported in their development of mathematical English, they are less likely to be able to fully participate in Maths lessons, which could lead to them not being able to make sufficient progress in the subject. In addition, while some consider Maths to be a global language, and believe that EAL learners will therefore experience little difficulty in using it, it is important to remember that some languages have alternative number scripts, and that EAL learners may be more familiar with these. Pim (2010) also explains that some countries use mathematical symbols in a different way – for example, in some countries, a multiplication symbol can look like a decimal point between two numbers, so 2.6 actually means 2×6 in these countries. When writing about currency, some countries use a comma instead of a full stop to mark the pennies or cents. 

Particularly within the secondary setting, mathematical word problems often present EAL learners with some difficulties. Mertin (2014) gives examples of typical mathematical word problems that EAL learners encounter. These include the following phrases:

  • You need to conduct a mathematical investigation which will help you answer the question.
  • Take a sample of the data provided in whichever way you feel is the fairest.
  • Write a short paragraph explaining what the above calculations tell you. 

Mertin goes on to explain that these types of word problems often include low frequency words such as ‘provided’. ‘construct’ or ‘visual representation’, and that these, as well as the sentence structures above, are confusing. When writing word problems, it would be better to use the ‘command’ verbs, such as ‘explain’, ‘calculate’ and ‘write’, which can be found in many other subject areas. In addition, it would be useful to provide EAL students with a model answer, so that they can see what is expected of them, or with some sentence starters to help them answer the question. 

For both younger and older students, it would also be beneficial to have visuals displayed around the classroom, so the students can understand mathematical language and become more familiar with it. In addition to this, they can translate terms into their mother tongue. These visual cues will help reinforce the language for the learner. 

The classroom is a rich environment for learners to have exposure to lots of language. Scott (2012) suggests that teachers should consider the language structures that can be taught within the subject area. For example, if you are teaching the topic of measurements, you would firstly need to make a list of the measurement vocabulary (and can use this as an opportunity to reinforce number learning). You can bring into the lesson some grammar-based resources to help the students understand how the mathematical language is used. For example, you could provide them with a table as shown below:

Noun Adjective Question
height high How high…?
length long How long…?
width wide How wide…?

Taken from: Svecova, H., Cross Curricular Activities, Oxford Basis

In addition, you can provide students with a table to support them with scaffolding their answers. For example:

How long is it in metres? It’s ….. metres long
  wide   feet and inches? It’s ….. foot/feet ….. inches wide
  high       high

Taken from: Svecova, H., Cross Curricular Activities, Oxford Basis

These are just some examples of how EAL learners can be supported with mathematical vocabulary and word problems. Below is a list of some other methods that may be useful when working with EAL learners in Maths:

  • Use interactive whiteboards to display visuals, or as an interactive toll to allow EAL learners to demonstrate their learning if they don’t have the language to verbally explain. 
  • Break down word problems into stages.
  • Display words that represent mathematical symbols in the classroom. 
  • Create plenty of speaking and listening opportunities for students to practise language structures. 
  • Provide a mix of pictorial, graphical and written models for problem-solving. 
  • Offer sentence starters to support answering questions. 


Mertin, Patricia. Breaking through the Language Barrier. N.p.: John Catt Educational, 2013. Print.

Naldic. “Mathematics and EAL.” NALDIC | EAL Resources | Mathematics and EAL. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Dec. 2016.

Pim, Chris. How to Support Children Learning English as an Additional Language. Cambridge: LDA, 2010. Print.

Scott, Caroline. Teaching English as an Additional Language, 5-11: A Whole School Resource File. London: Routledge, 2012. Print

Svecova H (2004) Cross-curricular Activities (Oxford Basics) OUP Oxford

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