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Graph and problem-solving activity
Author: Lois Francis, Ethnic Minority Achievement Adviser, Integra Schools, South Gloucestershire Council

It is often easier for learners who are new to English to cope with the arithmetic areas of the mathematics curriculum, rather than with problem-solving activities, as the former require the use of less English. It is important that children learning EAL are familiar with and able to use mathematical language to achieve their potential in all areas of the subject. This article aims to highlight some areas that should be considered and offer some recommendations for support.

The adjustments needed for life in a new country and a new school

Some pupils may find it difficult to settle and begin to learn as they adjust to a new country and a new school – for example, to the weather, food, clothing, teaching styles, classroom organisations and English accents. They may therefore benefit from a settling-in period. This could be enhanced by the provision of a welcoming environment that reflects the pupils’ language and culture.

Some pupils may also need to adjust to formal schooling. In some rural areas worldwide, less emphasis may be placed on the formal education of girls and some girls may thus arrive in schools with little experience of formal schooling. Some refugee and asylum-seeking children may have had no, little or interrupted education and may experience some difficulties settling in the classroom.

The pupils’ prior learning experiences

Pupils learning EAL may come from an education system where the emphasis is on formal mathematics and not on practical problem-solving or on linking mathematics with real life experiences.

Symbols, numerals and recording are not universal and some children may find this confusing at first, as they adjust to their classroom. These differences can be a barrier and prevent children from showing what they can do.

Mathematical language

A child learning EAL may appear to be using everyday language well, but may still need to develop the more abstract academic language needed to access the mathematics curriculum. EAL learners may experience difficulties with the following kinds of mathematical language:

  • Specialist mathematical vocabulary: for example, digit, triangle, multiply, equal, number line and graph.
  • Everyday words used in mathematically specific ways: for example, more than, take away, value, tables, share, product, scale and match.
  • Phrasal verbs, such as counting on, count up to and count on from.
  • Comparatives: for example, bigger, heavier, smaller and less than.

Recommendations for supporting EAL learners in the classroom

  • Have high expectations of pupils. Mathematics should not be made simpler because children are at the early stages of English, but should engage and challenge children. Providing appropriate language support can enable children to cope with some of the challenges in lessons. For example, use additional staff to pre-tutor key vocabulary such as names and properties of 2D and 3D shapes and names of UK currency and coins. Parents can also do the same in their first language.
  • Ensure that pupils are working in a culturally inclusive environment that reflects their language and culture. This will encourage engagement in activities even when pupils may find tasks linguistically challenging. For example, use images reflecting the diversity of the school when illustrating key mathematical concepts and methods. Use familiar names and objects that are culturally familiar for problem-solving. Use games and puzzles from other parts of the world, such as Africa, China and India.
  • School staff should be aware of strategies to support children in the early stages of learning English: for example, speaking clearly and without idioms; giving pupils time to process information and then give a response; and carefully considering the language demands of lessons. For example, consider the use of everyday words being used in a mathematical way, as referred to above, and other words like 'difference', 'volume' and 'even'. Use picture cues and concrete examples to help with understanding.
  • Ensure that pupils are familiar with number names, numerals and mathematical signs in English. Provide bilingual dictionaries or translated lists.
  • Give pupils opportunities to ‘hear’ and use mathematical English through practical mathematics activities. Provide opportunities for pupils to work collaboratively to make puzzles, play mathematics games and work with talk partners to clarify ideas.
  • Support should be based around assessment and action planning. Through observations, ascertain what the learner understands and can do mathematically, both formally and informally. Look for evidence across other curriculum areas, for example, understanding counting in PE, cooking, rhymes and songs. Check arithmetic skills using the usual school resources. Plan support based on the evidence gathered. Set targets and then review actions.
  • Use visuals, models and apparatus to give meaning to language. For example, use number lines, number squares, counting apparatus and measuring equipment to help with understanding.
  • ‘Chunk’ word problems into meaningful chunks and talk them through with pupils. For example, read questions out loud to pupils, highlighting and emphasising key words such as 'find the difference', 'how many?', 'if' and 'then'. Split questions up, if possible, and work out each part separately.

In conclusion, an awareness of the needs of children learning EAL, and the provision of the right kind of support, can make teaching and learning a positive experience for both pupils and teachers in the classroom.

Adapted fromMathematics and English as an additional language: guidance for working with pupils new to English
Original available from:

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