Larry Ferlazzo’s Websites of the Day…

…For Teaching ELL, ESL, & EFL

Guest Post: Teaching Math To English Language Learners


Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of guest posts that will be appearing on this blog about teaching math to English Language Learners.  I’ll be posting them over the next few weeks, and adding each one to The Best Resources For Teaching Common Core Math To English Language Learners.

The first in the series was “Speaking of Math: It’s time to talk in class” by Alycia Owen.

The second was “Support Reading, Support Mathematics Understanding” by Cindy Garcia.

Today’s post is written by Hannah Davis

Hannah Davis has spent the last four years teaching high school math exclusively to ESL students in the Newcomer Academy at Connally High School in Pflugerville ISD, outside of Austin, Texas. Her students were in their first two years of schooling in the US and came in with a variety of languages and math ability. Here are some of the things that really helped her as a teacher and helped her students.


Vocabulary is such a large part of mathematics and understanding the vocabulary is key to passing the Texas State STAAR Algebra test that students are required to take at the end of their first year in High School. The two strategies I used that substantially helped my students learn the vocabulary were choral reading and including visuals on anchor charts or word walls. We started each day by choral reading the pertinent vocabulary for that day’s lesson. Students would track the text and listen as I read the 3-8 words for the day. We could then use these words to predict their meanings, recognise cognates, or review from the previous lesson. After listening to me, students would then read the word aloud at least twice. Doing the whole group choral reading first helped the students feel more confident when they used the words later on in partner talk or during a quick write because they had already read, listened to, and spoken the words.  I added choral reading for vocabulary in this last year and saw a dramatic improvement in student’s use and understanding of vocabulary. It only took a few minutes each lesson and the students also really enjoyed it, often repeating the phrases like “same letter, same exponent” or “writing is thinking” to me in the hall in following years. Choralling is one of my and my students favorite strategies. Using the choraling strategy and including visuals with all anchor charts really helped my students over the years.



I used visuals as much as possible in my presentations and on the walls in my classroom. For each unit or topic, I created an anchor chart and corresponding vocabulary words with matching visual images for each. I also used visuals for non content related instructions so students could concentrate on the content and not get lost in the directions. For example, if the students required scissors or colored pencils for an activity or lesson, then those images would be included in presentations. For students struggling with solving equations, I included  pictures of scales to represent equations and for SIFE (students with interrupted formal education), I would often draw out an equations with shapes to represent variables and tally marks to represent the numbers.

3x + 5 = 3   may become ⍰⍰⍰ + IIIII = III

I love Noun Project for visuals –  there is a free version and an educator account is $19.99 a year, I especially love the add-on for Google Slides.



As much as possible try and model the mathematics.  I use ‘Hand on Equations’ with scales and pawns and I created a lifesize coordinate grid with tape in the classroom which we could use when students are learning to plot points and graph functions. We used ‘clothesline math’ examples using index card, strings and magnets  to solve equations. Human number lines and many more. Hands on activities with movement work so well with our English Language Learners.

Total Physical Response

Using gestures really helped my students and having them repeat the words with actions helped them remember what they learned. It also creates a fun and engaging atmosphere in the classroom. For example, my students and I would never say the words “above” or “numerator” without also making the actions.  Or we would trace shapes, like a parabola as we said the word. These total physical responses really helped the students understand the lessons because they physically connected with the concepts.



Students enjoyed using DESMOS especially for graphing activities. There are so many great activities included and many of them are editable so it’s easy to take an activity and customise by simplifying the English to make it more accessible to ELs. I love being able to easily create digital card sorts in DESMOS as another great way for students to practice their vocabulary. An additional great resource for math is the Khan Academy website because it has excellent videos and practice problems. I would often assign videos to students who want extra practice at home or in tutorials. The entire Khan Academy website is available in Turkish , German, Norwegian, Polish , Hindi, Bangla , Georgian , Spanish, Portuguese, French and the majority or videos have subtitles in many more languages so students can read along in their native language as they listen to the video in English.



A large percentage of my students came with low numeracy skills. Everyday for our warm up students complete a five minute warm up from Numeracy Ninja’s free program with printable workbooks, powerpoints with timers etc. Students compete against themselves to get to the next level “ninja belt.” This has been a huge hit in my class and we have a large display with certificates celebrating their growth at least every 9 week period.  This resource is also great during our intervention period where students may do peer tutoring with other students that had not had schooling. I print workbooks aimed at K-4th grade and students work with those manipulatives and multiplication skills for students to work on outside of the regular class time.

Color Coding

I color code as much as possible and it is especially helpful with my lower learners. For example,  I assign red to ‘X’ and blue to ‘Y’ for the year so the horizontal x-axis will be red and the Vertical Y-axis will be blue this goes for Domain and Range values and can be referred to all year long. When problems involved multiple steps I would color code each step so that students could clearly see which order to perform the steps.


I have many students who may be shy to participate and speak English in front of their peers. My aim is to have as many questions as possible answered by all students either using ABCD response cards, whiteboard, or gestures that we created as a class. For other questions I rely on a spinning online name picker or popsicle sticks to randomise students in a transparent way. I also use a ticket system where students earn tickets by reading objectives, helping each other, etc.

Make It Visual – Make It Collaborative – Make It Meaningful – Make It Hands On – Talk Slowly and Repeat

My favourite resources: You Cubed, Khan Academy, Desmos, Math Equals Love, Twitter, Kahoot, Quizizz, TalkingPts (a multilanguage remind), Stanford’s University Mathematical Mindset Course (with English and Spanish subtitles), Noun Project, Numeracy Ninjas

Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *.

Skip to toolbar