Math: The Universal Language?

I’ve heard it dozens of times. “Math is the easiest subject for English language learners (ELLs) to pick up because it’s all numbers. It’s a universal language.”

Not so. From eleventh grade ELLs struggling to pass Algebra 1 to second grade ELLs struggling to memorize subtraction facts, I have decided that the “universal language” idea is a MYTH.

Math, in fact, is its own language complete with difficult vocabulary and challenging syntax. Teachers of math have to teach not only numbers and computation, but also math communication skills. Math is not numbers; it is critical thinking. It is understanding relationships. It is abstract thinking.

I have found that the majority of ELLs are lacking the basic foundational concepts of math. They don’t have their facts memorized, but it goes much deeper than that. Here are some examples of what I’m talking about:

I am trying to teach my second graders strategies for remembering subtraction facts. One such strategy is for subtracting 9s. For 15-9, you subtract 10, then add 1. So 15-10 is 5, plus 1 is 6. However, this strategy doesn’t work for them because they do not understand what happens when you add 10 and a 1-digit number. They don’t automatically know that 10 plus 4 is 14 or 10 plus 8 is 18.

Second example: I’m working with my third graders on preparing for TCAP (big standardized state test), and one of their questions asked them to identify a number sentence that matched a word problem. It was something like, “Tim has 6 friends and gave each of his friends 12 baseball cards. How many baseball cards did he give away in all?” Then the students had to choose from 12 + 6, 12-6, and 12 x 6. My students wanted to try to solve it. I had to point out that the actual numerical solution was not one of their answer choices. They just had to identify the process, the how to get to the answer.

So, as you can see, I’m not dealing with dumb kids. I’m dealing with kids who 1) have not mastered the language of math in English and 2) have not mastered the concepts that underly the procedures. As I said above, I’ve taught high schoolers who have the same struggles.

Here are my conclusions:

1. ELLs need to be taught math in their native language for the first 2-3 years they are in American schools. This way, they are at least learning “math-ese” in the language they are most familiar with.

2. ELLs need to be taught concepts before procedures. For example, teachers can use base 10 blocks and place value mats and a process of exchanging tens for ones and so on to initially teach adding and subtracting with regrouping. Once the students visually see the concept of “carrying” and “borrowing” (which I prefer to call “regrouping”), they will learn the procedure more quickly.

3. ELLs need more explicit instruction in and more time to learn math vocabulary and syntax. They need to be encouraged to communicate their thought processes and articulate how and why they solved a problem. In order to do so, there should be a huge focus on vocabulary.


  1. Margaret says:

    This is very helpful to me. I have students who are ELL, although they are not designated as such because they are Pre-K. These comments encourage me to be mindful of the terminology of math. This will result in more “hands-on” practice for my group, thanks!

    • kksorrell says:


      Glad to help . . . now can you tell me what to do to get my Pre-K students to learn English???!!! I only see them once a week since technically they’re not in the program yet. 1 of them is doing great, 2 are so-so, and 1 still speaks NO English!

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