# Teaching Math to ESL and EFL Students

Paul has spent many years teaching English as a foreign and second language. He has taught EFL in Taiwan and Thailand, and ESL in the U.S.

## Difficulties in Teaching Math to ESL and EFL Students

Teaching math to ESL and EFL students in school immersion programs is much more difficult than you might think. In reality, the teacher has two challenges. The first is making sure the student understands the English used in math instruction. The second is ensuring that the student understands and uses math concepts to perform basic arithmetical and algebraic computations and then applies this knowledge to solve real-world word problems. This article will examine the two challenges and suggest ways the teacher can help students meet them.

## English Used in Math Instruction

There is much English math vocabulary encountered in textbooks and speech that all students enrolled in English immersion programs must know. It includes words like add and plus; minus and subtract; multiplied by or times, and divided by. It also encompasses more specialized vocabulary such as equals, quotient, fraction, decimal, percentage, formula, a power of, squared, cubed, square root, differential, integral, and many others. Before a teacher gives any meaningful math instruction, he must make sure his students understand and can use this specialized math vocabulary.

One of the most significant difficulties most students have is understanding English word problems where they must apply certain arithmetical and algebraic principles to get an answer. As an example, consider the following real-life word problem:

June works as a sales clerk in a clothing store. She has four days off each month and earns a basic wage of 250 Thai baht daily. She also receives a 15 percent commission for each sale she makes. In September June earned a total of 9,500 baht from basic wages and commissions. What was the total amount of sales she made in September?

In this word problem the student must understand the following words and phrases: sales clerk; four days off; earns a basic wage; per day; receives a 15 percent commission; and total. if the student does not know the meaning of these words and what is asked in the problem, the teacher must first explain the meaning of the unknown vocabulary and the problem before expecting the student to solve it.

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## Understanding Math Concepts and Principles as Well as Applications

The second challenge is helping the student understand math concepts and principles so that he or she can first do basic computations, and then apply this knowledge to solve real-world application problems. During my three months of experience teaching math to EFL eighth graders, I learned that some students still needed remedial help in doing basic computations such as adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing. Many students also struggled with understanding the concept of fractions, decimals, and percentages, and using these in computations to solve problems. A lot of practice exercises and homework were needed so that the students could grasp the use of all of these concepts.

In doing any kind of word problem I always insisted that my students show all of their work and logic in getting a solution. Merely writing the answer to a problem or showing a computation with no explanation was unacceptable.

Understanding math instruction in English and the use of arithmetical and algebraic concepts and principles in computations and applications will remain challenges for ESL and EFL students in school immersion programs. Through a better understanding of English and visualization of word problems, students through extensive practice should start meeting the challenges.

## Teaching Math to ESL Students

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.