How Can ESL Strategies Improve Instruction in Mathematics?


How Can ESL Strategies Improve Instruction in Mathematics?

Presented by Baba Toure and Miguelina Tejada
Spring 2005


Our purpose in conducting this research is to determine the impact of ESL strategies on our instruction in mathematics. Since we were making significant changes in our classroom practice, we wanted to see if the changes would enhance our understanding of the processes that the students are engaged in. We wanted to know if there was a reason for students to say, "I hate word problems." We knew that solving word problems was one of our ELL students' weaknesses. Therefore, we decided to incorporate ESL techniques in order to give them more opportunities to improve their ability to write, read, create, analyze, and make conclusions with their own words. We believed that solving this kind of problem would help them to understand word problems. They won't say again, "These problems are boring, long, and difficult," "I don't like word problems," or "I don't know what to do." For example: What is the area of a circle whose diameter is twenty inches? Here we have three problems: the first is that we need to know that the radius is half the diameter, the second problem is the formula for the area of a circle, which is πr2, then the calculations.

In our school, we are instructed to make sure that students have a journal entry every day. These journals give us feedback on our daily instruction. We learned in the first semester course the importance of the journal. In fact, we learned that journals help students to develop their writing ability. In addition, we learned from reading different handouts that we received during the courses the importance of reading, writing, speaking, and listening.


How can ESL strategies improve instruction in mathematics?

How does students' ability to solve mathematical problems change?

How have students' writing skills been improved?

How is our teaching style affected?

Student Population

Eleanor Roosevelt Intermediate School, IS 143, is located at 515 W. 182nd Street in Manhattan, in District 6, which is a part of Region 10. The neighborhood is largely populated by immigrants from the Dominican Republic. We must take note that a significant proportion of these kids was born in the United States. The students that we work with are sixth-grade Bilingual Education students. They are ten and eleven years old.

For this action research project, we focused on the students who are English language learners. There are thirty students in the class, 11 boys and 19 girls. Twenty-nine are of Dominican descent, one is of Mexican descent, and one is African-American. They are all English Language Learners. We set up the classroom as follows: a small group of four students with whom we use ESL techniques, and the other students with whom we use our own teaching styles. When it comes to evaluating them, the small group of four students received additional instruction. You will see the difference on the students' worksheet.

Methods of Collecting Data

We will review data from different sources, including a pre-test, two problems, and a final evaluation. The pre-test will incorporate part of the journal entry in which the students, through questioning, expressed their opinions about mathematics. We also concentrated on different handouts that we assigned during class. In these handouts, students have to solve word problems based on logical reasoning. Students have to create their own word problems. We have been assigning instruction every Friday since April 22, 2005. The first assignment was based on the four-step strategy to solve a problem. The students were asked to use the four-step plan to solve the given problem on transplants in 1992 in the United States. We wanted to make sure that students mastered the procedure we had taught them. The second problem contained more deductive logic. Here students have to use the four-step plan process by comparing numbers and eliminating cases. Students have to read the problem carefully, then analyze their choices, using X for impossible choices and O for a possible choice to fill out the chart. At the end, we have them explain how they got their answers. They were asked to use complete sentences, to begin sentences by using capital letters, place periods at the end, and to check their spelling. The third problem was a problem in which the students have to use colors instead of numbers. Using colors instead of numbers made the problem a little bit more complex. In addition, students were asked to explain their work in words. Finally, students answered questions in a journal entry, expressing their learning experience.


During this project, we began on focusing on the students' understanding. We noticed that they didn't understand the importance of the concept of word problems. But, in the end, students demonstrated a real improvement. We were impressed by the change that happened: they were writing with fewer mistakes, using complete sentences, etc. The pre-test shows that students didn't know the four-step plan. After we implemented the instruction, they felt comfortable with it. Many times, students think that it's easier to just answer by using number computation without any form of explanation.

We analyzed the four-step plan and applied it to the problems we had to solve. Using the ESL strategy, we wanted to be sure that students knew what they were going to do, and that there were not any vocabulary words that they didn't know. We presented all the colors that we wanted to use (red, green, blue, white, and yellow) in order to make the problem understandable.

We expected to have about 98% success but we got about 90%. However, they did great in the last assignment. They were able to explain the four-step plan. They were also able to write their own word problems and solve them.

We have implemented in our sixth-grade class the strategies to solve word problems. A lesson has been presented. We have to modify the instruction to meet students' needs. Students also had a great opportunity to have social interaction with their peers. They asked many questions, such as how they could fill out tables, if they could get more clues, and so on. Upon responding to their concerns, we asked them to read carefully so that they could see that the answers were in the test itself.


We have been impressed by the students' reaction toward the learning experience. The students' ability to solve word problems has increased, as well as their motivation to learn. They were able to solve word problems at the end. They were also able to write their own word problems and solve them. Integrating ESL strategies into mathematics instruction was a wonderful experience. The important part of this project was the use of ESL techniques. However, mathematics has its own language of specific words and symbols. In the first semester, we read "Integrating Language and Mathematics Learning" by Angele Carrasquillo and Vivian Rodriguez. Professor Shanahan also gave us a useful handout titled "Supporting ESL Students in Learning the Language of Mathematics," by Jim Cummins.

We have practiced reading, writing, speaking, and finally listening, because we asked students to listen silently to the speakers. We certainly had a great time with our students, and we believe that we helped them to achieve a better understanding of word problems.


We appreciate the contribution of our presenters, the coachers, and our students. We were limited by the pacing calendar. We had to modify our expectations. We wanted to work with eighth-grade students, but we ended up working with a sixth-grade class. April is the month in which sixth graders have the Citywide Mathematics Test. The eighth graders have theirs in May, so during that period we could not do much. To improve the quality of the participants' work, it may be interesting to ask the school administration to reduce the number of coverages to enable teachers to meet more often. We have spent an exciting time with our teachers in this program, and we have improved our teaching style significantly.