Breaking Barriers to Math Success for English Learners [Free Infographic]

Math has been called the universal language. More than any other subject, math skills are the top predictor for student success. But with lengthy word problems and other language-heavy instructional methods, how can English learners (ELs) have the same access to the essential and universal language of math? 

Taking Language Out of the Equation

Author and Stanford Professor of Mathematics Education Jo Boaler provided research on how teaching math through visual representations improves student math performance significantly.

Here at MIND Research Institute, mathematicians and neuroscience researchers have found that teaching math using a game-based visual learning approach that activates the brain's spatial-temporal reasoning skills leads to a deeper understanding of concepts for all students, including ELs. Let's take a closer look at the potential impact visual instructional technology can have on ELs' math education.

ELs and the Math Achievement Gap

Why focus on math? Shouldn't reading skills come first for ELs? Interestingly, a study by University of California professor Greg Duncan found that having strong early math skills is a stronger predictor of later academic success, more than literacy skills or positive student behaviors. Meanwhile, a new report by NAEP shows that average mathematics scores for the nation were lower by 5 points at fourth grade and lower by 8 points at eighth grade compared to scores in 2019.

Providing ELs access to the same level of math rigor as other students is an essential aspect of supporting overall academic success. When considering instructional solutions inclusive of ELs, particularly technology-based instruction, here are some features to look for:

  • Presents math problems and concepts visually 
  • Allows interactive, self-directed exploration
  • Delivers scaffolded, mastery-based learning
  • Introduces mathematical language in strategic intervals
  • Provides data and real-time, formative feedback so players can monitor their progress and adjust their solution path

Supporting Teacher Efficacy

ELs aren’t the only ones challenged by math struggles. Many elementary teachers have admitted they experience some kind of math anxiety themselves. In addition, job satisfaction and teacher retention rates are typically lower in low-income schools, often where EL representation is particularly high. The average low-income school can expect to lose at least 50 percent of its staff every three years. 

Addressing these concerns can start with increasing the level of mentorship, training, and instructional resources to support teachers in doing what they love to do: helping students reach their potential.

Innovative instructional math technology can play a critical role by:

  • Assisting teachers in providing individualized and effective instruction
  • Meeting each student’s learning needs, regardless of language or achievement level
  • Guiding students through carefully crafted, self-paced learning paths for content mastery

Building Family Engagement

Students spend 70 percent of waking hours outside of school walls. At home, ELs may face additional challenges such as not having access to devices and the internet. Also, parents may have limited education levels and English proficiency. Providing equal access to math success for ELs includes considering their learning needs at home.

Here are two additional areas to consider:

  • How can we support at-home learning by giving ELs the same access to technology-based homework time, when they might not have devices or internet availability?
  • Does the math instructional program support parents of ELs to keep track of student learning progress and facilitate productive communication with their children and their teachers? 

Here's an infographic that presents these and other considerations around EL math success:

(View Full Size)



This blog post was updated on November 2, 2022.

Heera Kang

About the Author

Heera Kang was Manager of Engagement Content and Design at MIND Research Institute. Productive struggle, growth mindset and equity in education are some of her favorite topics.


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