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NYC Helpline: How To: Teach Math
Helping English Language Learners Tackle Math Word Problems in First and Second Grade
Sarah Picard

As a former second grade teacher, I took special care when planning for lessons that involved word problems in mathematics. As a teacher of several English Language Learners, I wanted to make sure they were able to comprehend the questions they were asked, and able to apply their computational skills to each problem solving situation. Here are a few tips that may also work for your students.

First, I began by simply asking more questions during the school day that used words like, more than, less than, and how many. Here are a few examples.

  • “How many students are absent today?”
  • “How many more children are absent today than yesterday?”
  • “We had 24 pencils in the pencil jar, now there are only 17. How many did we lose?”

These every day problems were part of many classrooms’ daily routines (in morning meeting, or perhaps in Ten Minute Math, a separate time in the day to give additional problem solving time). Infusing this language into the classroom will help the children recognize the meaning of the words when they see them in a different setting, such as math workshop.

It was also important for the children to be exposed to questions. Much of the text they were learning to read was written in declarative sentences. This exposure to questions was vital for their comprehension.

Second, we took every opportunity to explore the idea of change. Most word problems involve some sort of change (a person is given a certain amount of something and then some are taken away; a child pays money for an item and gets some of the money back, etc). The children and I took time to write and talk about change. Here are a few examples.

  • If a new student came to the class, we could write a word problem to show how the total number of students in the class changed.
  • As children returned permission slips for field trips, we worked through a word problem to find out how many more permission slips we needed to go on the trip.

Third, we used the balanced literacy component, Shared Reading, to study some of the problems we were asked. We read problems carefully, demonstrating reading and rereading for comprehension. The rereading proved to be the most important strategy to highlight. Many of the students read the problem once and then felt like giving up. After we practiced rereading several times, they began to feel more confident in their ability to comprehend the situation described in the story problem. Here are a couple of things we did to help with the comprehension.

  • The students acted out the problems to show the change.
  • The students used manipulatives to show change, actually moving the objects to help solve the problem.

These are simple, effective ways to expose math word problems to young learners.


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