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What makes math difficult for ELL learners?

What Makes Mathematics Difficult for
 Young English Language Learners (ELLs)?


  • In addition to learning the new words specific to math such as denominator and quotient, students must also learn new meanings for words and phrases they already know when they are used in math.  Some such words and phrases include table, square, set, line, product, place value, take away, round, average, point, and times.  Familiar vocabulary such as lower than, under, or below would mean less than in a math command such as Find a number below 7.  
  • In English, we have many ways to say the same thing such as add, plus, sum, combine, altogether, total, and increased by.
  • Students must learn not only the definitions for the math terms but also their meanings when used in mathematical expressions.  For example, 7 multiplied by 8  has a totally different meaning than 7 increased by 8, and divided by gives a very different result from divided into.  
  • ELLs often have difficulty understanding unfamiliar vocabulary used in word problems. For example, many students may not know such words as chores, rake, or parade that their native-speaking peers know. The ELLs may not understand the problem well enough to solve it.

Syntax (Word Order)

  • Syntactic structures particular to math may be difficult for ELLs such as x times as much as in Juana earned six times as much as John, and -er than as in Juana was five years older than John.
  • Numbers are often used as nouns rather than as adjectives in word problems such as in Thirty is six times a certain number. This can be confusing to ELLs.
  • Passive voice is often used in math problems. For example, When 6 is added to a certain number, the result is 11. Many ELLs come from languages that do not have a passive voice or have a passive voice that is constructed differently.  


  • ELL students must learn to relate the meaning of the math symbols such as , , , >, <,  to the math operations and understand their relationship to everyday concepts.
  • Students who have studied math in their native countries may have learned to use different symbols.  Often a comma is used where we use a decimal point and vice versa.  For example, an ELL may write 600.000 for 600,000 and 4,75 for 4.75.

Ellipsis and Cohesion

  • To avoid being redundant, many word problems in math may omit words that are considered unnecessary to native speakers of English.  This may confuse ELLs.  For example, a problem may say all numbers greater than 7 rather than all numbers that are greater than 7.
  • To avoid repetition, many word problems use pronouns to refer to people or things already mentioned in the problem.  ELLs may not readily know what the pronouns refer to, such as in the following problem. Juana had seven apples. She gave two of them to John.  How many apples does she have now? Some languages do not have pronouns, and some use them differently.   

Math Cultural Differences

  • Many other countries do not spend much time focusing on fractions the way we do in the U.S.  They use the metric system and express fractions in decimals.
  • Many ELLs come from countries that spend a lot of time learning computation and rarely use manipulatives when studying math.  
  • Many ELLs are used to doing mental math and may not be accustomed to having to show their work.
  • One-hundred and two-hundred charts used in our school may be unfamiliar to ELLs.

Anderson, J. (2007). The mathematics of language.  Available:

Heinze, K. (2005). The language of math.  TESOL 2005.  San Antonio, Texas.

Irujo, S. (2007). Teaching math to English language learners: Can research help? ELL Outlook.
        Available: Outlook/2007/mar_apr/ELLOutlookITIArticle1.htm