Math Learning for ELL Students

“Word Problem Strategy for Latino English Language Learners at Risk for Math Disabilities” by Michael J. Orosco, PhD, pages 45-53 of Hammill Institute on Disabilites


This is an analysis of the above article. This article explored different teaching strategies for facilitating English Language Learner (ELL) students in improving their math word problem comprehension. ELLs are at a disadvantage to native English speakers when it comes to proficiency in solving math word problems. These proficiencies arise from English being their second language, limited math vocabulary, and the lack of structured instruction for such learners.

This article focused on the effectiveness of using a Dynamic Assessment (DA) framework to evaluate a strategy called Dynamic Strategic Math (DSM), which is a procedure that uses differing levels of mathematic vocabulary in order to scaffold ELL instruction. Orosco proposes that math instruction should include direct instruction of math concepts along with visual representations of them in order to connect verbal to visual information. In addition, small group or pair work with the teacher should be included so that proper modeling of each concept is shown along with constructive feedback and assessment. Through DA, a teacher will facilitate a student’s learning through vocabulary scaffolding and building upon existing knowledge.

In this study, six third-grade Latino ELLs were chosen based on criteria such as teacher recommendation, performance in English classes, district math test scores, and CELDT scores. The math instruction strategy used, DSM, focused on building math vocabulary, teaching students how to evaluate and adjust when facing learning difficulties, practicing language skills alongside problem-solving skills, asking and answering critical questions, and having students reflect on key ideas needed for problem-solving. Instruction was broken down into four levels each with increasingly advanced vocabulary.

All students started at level-one problems and underwent three phases of intervention. Phase one included pre-teaching of key concepts and vocabulary, phase two used five problem-solving strategies (What Do I Know, What Can I Find, What Is The Set-up, Solve It, and Check For Understanding), and phase three utilized collaborative learning with student-teacher pairs.

In conclusion, the DSM intervention strategies showed an increasing trend in math-word-problem solving ability amongst ELL students. Students were able to maintain their levels of understanding after the study had finished. Students also showed an increased desire for future intervention.

In my opinion, this article touches on many of the key components of effective ELL instruction. The study proved the importance of developing lessons that take into account the students’ background knowledge of math as well as English language ability. It has been shown that a student will struggle with math-word-problems, not necessarily because of their lack of mathematical ability, but because of their lack of vocabulary in the English language.

Thus, it is imperative that we, as teachers, include explicit instruction on new vocabulary and concepts using visual representation such as picture files. We must also continuously monitor our students’ progress throughout the lesson and, if needed, provide instructional scaffolding by providing lower-level alternatives to math vocabulary. In doing so, we can facilitate the learning of ELL students in a mainstream classroom environment while solidifying key concepts.

Along with providing personalized instruction for ELL students, we must also carefully provide guided practice and feedback, which will help students increase their confidence in approaching new math word problems. It is clear that when students are provided the proper learning tools, a fair learning environment, appropriately leveled instructional material, and teacher-guided intervention and feedback, they will prosper in the classroom, even when faced with difficult subject matter.


  1. Erin McGinnis January 26, 2018 at 8:31 am

    I agree that showing new vocabulary with a visual is very helpful to ELL students. We have used a vocabulary matrix in the past where the students had to draw something for each vocabulary word. I felt that was the most effective way to complete new vocabulary instruction.

  2. Susie Terry January 26, 2018 at 10:45 am

    This year and last year, I have had an interesting situation happen with my EL math students. I have had three students now who are able to fully follow the lesson, not speaking a word of English. They are clearly advanced Math learners, and the lack of English is not a hindrance in the class. I have these students helping other EL learners who know more English, but less Math. So, the mathematically inclined Spanish speakers are teaching the less-inclined English speakers who understand Spanish.

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