Math Games and English Language Learners

As an elementary math specialist, I talk about math all the time. The moment I begin a conversation, a wall comes down, and so many children (and adults) quickly blurt out that they dread math and say they have never been good at it.

To be perfectly honest, as a student, I struggled with math. I didn’t understand why it came so naturally to some students, but not to me. Looking back, however, I realize that I had an advantage that I wasn’t even aware of — I understood the language in which the problems were written, even if I didn’t understand how to solve them!

I can imagine what it must be like for English language learners (ELLs). Although it is easy to assume that many ELLs will excel in math because math is a “universal language”, and students may have had prior educational experience that included mathematical instruction, that assumption can lead educators astray.

Young children, whether ELLs or native English speakers, need to work with more than just worksheets to learn and understand math concepts. Utilizing multiple learning modalities will help all students to develop a deeper understanding of number concepts and relationships, but is especially helpful for English language learners.

If your goal is an excellent mathematics program for every child, then for these students, successful teachers need to find ways to make math understandable, relevant, and familiar. It is imperative that teachers utilize multiple instructional approaches.

The use of pairs or small groups is an instructional strategy that can be very effective for ELL students. By grouping students, you can encourage communication and interaction in a non-threatening and more relaxed setting.

Because math games require active involvement, use concrete objects and manipulatives, and are hands-on, they are ideal for all learners. Games provide opportunities for children to work in small groups, practice teamwork, cooperation, and effective communication. Children learn from each other as they talk, share, and reflect throughout game times. Language acquisition is meaningful and understandable.