Teaching EAL Learners Maths Word Problems

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I was recently asked by a Maths teacher to support her in tackling word problems in Maths that her EAL learners were finding difficult to answer. Inspired by some of the great advice from The Bell Foundation and particularly this article here I planned a lesson to support EAL learners in understanding the language of Maths word problems.

The article includes, amongst other things, advice on teaching EAL learners how to tackle word problems. Firstly, word problems are generally written in the present tense and may appear to be written much like a narrative. Secondly, EAL learners may use the information in the order in which it is presented and this is not always how the Maths problems are presented. The article also discusses how we can support our EAL learners in understanding complex mathematical language through strategies such as:

  • Helping EAL learners to develop strategies to tackle problems where they may not be familiar with all the words
  • Modelling the language EAL learners need to use
  • Practising the most common types of problems frequently
  • Encouraging EAL learners to learn key words and phrases that often come up (altogether, each, the same, as many as possible etc.)

Inspired by this advice I set about designing a lesson that would allow the EAL learners to tackle Maths word problems. These are the stages in the lesson.

  1. Check prior knowledge by setting a starter activity that asked learners to think of as many words as they could for increase and decrease (the two calculations that they would look at today).
  2. After explaining the aims of the lessons I did a further prior knowledge check through Think, Pair, Share asking them the question ‘How do you solve word problems in maths?’ This was especially important to do because it helped me understand what prior knowledge / background information they had and how I could plugs gaps in their knowledge throughout the lesson.
  3. A word collection. Around the room I posted the language that they would encounter in the Maths word problems and asked learners to place them in a table (that they drew in their book). Rather than just give them a list of words to copy into a table they had to walk around the room and decide if the words meant increase or decrease. It could also be a sorting activity in which they sort the words into the correct columns. You can see the table below.

The word collection included the words and phrases:

  • is reduced by
  • lose
  • falls by
  • is put in
  • rises by
  • profit

4. To check their answers to this I made each student read out one of the words from their list and where they had placed it whilst the rest of the class checked their answers and made alterations if needed. In this way I was able to check understanding and clarify any misunderstandings they had.

5. Inspired by a great activity I saw on the fantastic website http://www.collaborativelearning.org/ I adapted an activity that you could find here. Learners practice common word problems and develop their strategies in tackling word problems. Below is a screenshot of one of the word problems they had to tackle with an explanation underneath of the steps involved.

  • Learner A read the word problem
  • Learner B listened and decided which calculation was the right one and had to use the phrase ‘I think it is … because …’
  • Learner A listened and if they disagreed I told them to say ‘I disagree because it should be…’
  • Learners then collaborated to write the solution to the word problem.
  • For the remaining word problems, learners swapped roles each time they completed a word problem

What I learnt from this activity was that:

  • it gave learners real practice in using the target language of maths word problems
  • it also helped them to develop their pronunciation and knowledge symbols such as £ and %
  • it gave them practice in saying numbers out loud which is valuable practice for them and it was extremely collaborative as learners worked together to solve the word problems
  • it gave them opportunities to practice the language of explaining and justifying.

6. When learners had practised this for 10 – 15 minutes we then went through the word problems to check their understanding. Learners were asked ‘why is that the answer?’ to ensure they selected the correct calculation. Also, I was able to highlight, through the learners responses, keywords learners needed to identify and discuss with which words were not important to understand. Often I find that EAL learners can sometimes be overwhelmed by the amount of words in a maths word problem. Together we were able to see that all you really needed to understand where the numbers and they order in which they should be placed and which calculation was necessary.

It was a really powerful lesson that involved a lot of collaboration and learners using the target language in authentic and meaningful situations.

The Maths teacher I worked with was impressed with the attention to language and hopefully it has inspired her to try similar activities herself.

EAL learners need lots of opportunities to practice answering maths word problems especially when they move towards their GCSE exams (secondary exams in UK). The language of Maths word problems can seem quite daunting to EAL learners but with activities such as those outlined above, the job of tackling word problems can be much easier for our EAL learners.

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