Editor’s Note: This is the sixth 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.

The third was  Teaching Math To English Language Learners by Hannah Davis.

The fourth was Supporting ELLs in Math Instruction by Nicholas Pesola

The fifth was Quick tips for making ELL students comfortable in the Math Classroom by Sarah Peterson


Today’s post is by Alicia Fisher

Alicia Fisher began her teaching career in Indianapolis 8 years ago.  She has taught Kinder, third and fourth grades.  She has been teaching in Maryland for the last 3 years. Her passion is Math/Science and integrated lesson planning. She has one amazing daughter. Alicia loves cooking and gardening when not teaching at school. 


Eight years ago, I moved from the financial industry to the education sector.  For the last 3 years, I’ve had the opportunity to teach Math and Science to fourth grade students, many of whom are English Language Learners and Special Education students.  I’ve found that no matter the content, social-emotional learning is crucial in the classroom and essential for the ELL student. Social learning theory proposes that people learn through observation, imitation and modeling.  As educators, we know this to be true. We model the behaviors we want from our students. We model different ways to solve problems. When students don’t know how to respond or what to do, they look to their peers and/or imitate what they have observed.

In our classrooms, we are fortunate enough to have four adults; a general educator, a special educator, a paraprofessional and an ISEA (Itinerant Special Education Assistant).  This gives us the ability, after whole-group instruction, to break into several small groups with targeted direct- teaching. In schools with less adults per room, I would suggest three small groups/stations with at least one being independently run by the students themselves.  Whether you are a proponent for homogenous or heterogeneous grouping, we have found that AT LEAST two ELL students per group helps facilitate risk-taking and more active participation. To have a group of solely English language learners creates an environment where some introverted students sit back and let one or two students do all the talking and hence, all the learning.

Once your groups are established, it’s time to check the M.A.I.L. !


  • Meaningful


ELL students need to have meaningful content.  Link lessons to real life situations and interests.  Simple math tasks such as counting and graphing can be used to explore student preferences and point out cultural differences.  This provides an opportunity to have an inclusive discussion that enhances the classroom environment. Students may also have an opportunity to teach counting in a different language.  Posting visuals like Spanish counting cards is helpful to this end. For older children, incorporating games and sports increases engagement and affords opportunities to explore diversity in the classroom.

  • Applicable

Students need to see the application of lessons to their lives.  Alignment to Common Core Standards is important, as is the need for students to understand why they are learning specific content.  For primary students, saving an allowance to purchase a favorite toy requires addition and subtraction knowledge and money sense. The same is true for intermediate students with an entrepreneurial spirit.  Starting a business, even as simple as a lemonade stand, requires multiplication and division skills. The ability to calculate the price of a prom dress that is discounted 40% builds a connection between the classroom and everyday life.

  • Integrated

This is my favorite.  Our math class is NOT just a math class.  In order for ELL students to successfully gain English literacy they must have many and varied opportunities to engage with language, both English and their own.   Incorporating picture books and writing has proven to be a successful strategy in our math classroom. For any given topic, Marilyn Burns has a picture book to compliment the lesson.  The Greedy Triangle teaches about geometry and self-acceptance.  Spaghetti and Meatballs for All teaches about problem solving, multiplication and division and inclusion while also offering an opportunity to discuss customs and international foods.  Of course there are a plethora of books related to math concepts that can be used. Even fourth graders still love to be read to.

E.M. Forster is credited as saying, “How can I know what I think until I see what I say?”  Just as important as reading, writing for the ELL student reinforces patterns and language acquisition.  Many classrooms are full of reluctant writers. In the ELA classroom you may even hear groans when the teacher asks students to take out their journals.  In the Math/Science classroom there is a different response which makes integration so important (and so easy – in my experience).

The trick is BEFORE.  BEFORE we complete the Math problems, BEFORE we do the Science investigation, BEFORE we play the fraction game…you have to write in your journal.  Unlock the prompt in the word problem. What is the problem asking you to do? What strategies are you going to use? Write those down, and while you’re at it, write our objective as the title of the page.  When students are being scientists, they naturally write what they expect to happen and what really did happen. I’m currently teaching summer school, and my content is writing. During the first week of class, after all students had written 5 pages of notes and reflections, the teacher of robotics asked them what they had learned in their other class and the students answered with an emphatic ‘Science!’  She continued questioning them and said, ‘Haven’t you been writing?’ and they replied, ‘Oh yeah, that too’ as an afterthought. I was so pleased! Since I am ‘distracting’ them with STEM activities, they don’t even realize the extensive writing they are accomplishing.

  • Lasting

Lastly, see what I did there?  Having a student-centered approach to language acquisition and learning will have a lasting effect.  Teaching content with materials and strategies to meet varied learning styles helps students navigate developmental and learning challenges.  As I previously mentioned, our math stations always include a center with manipulatives, a center focused on reteaching (RTI) or extensions for SpEd students, and an independent center focused on using technology.  These centers are specifically chosen to aid the students that need tactile lessons, need additional time or content, and the students that would rather work alone using the computer. It is of note that even the students that prefer the computers enjoy sharing their work with their group.  Learning is social. Encourage group work and observe how students rise and help each other. You’ll discover strengths in your students and joy in your classroom.