It’s common for English Language Learners (ELL students) to struggle with reading comprehension. This has a huge impact on learning across all subjects, and is especially evident when it comes to solving number stories, or word problems. If you’ve been wondering “How can I help my ELL students in math?”, you’re in the right place.

In this article, I’ll discuss:

- Common misconceptions about helping ELL students with reading comprehension
- Strategies to support comprehension of number stories
- How Structures of Equality (SoE) can increase conceptual understanding
- Example number stories that could be challenging for ELL students

Mathematics is about sense-making, problem solving, and critical thinking. These are all hard to do when language is a barrier. When faced with number stories, many ELL students experience frustration. A problem they could successfully comprehend in their native language becomes what feels like an insurmountable task.

As teachers, we want to help. And one of the strategies commonly suggested to help ELL students in math is to teach them key words. But rather than scaffolding and supporting understanding, key words actually impede mathematical proficiency. What seems like a quick fix is instead a damaging practice.

There’s a great example in this article about how the language we use in math can be harmful. There are two number stories presented that both include the words “in all”. One is a problem that requires addition to solve and the other one is multiplicative.

When we teach key words, we teach kids to ignore the context of the problem. Rather than building their reading comprehension skills, we unknowingly teach them that context doesn’t matter. This will not help them be mathematically proficient later, even when they are proficient with English.

Okay, so if key words don’t work, what does?

When it comes to number stories, quality beats quantity every time. In order to truly comprehend the situations occurring within any number story, we have to take the time to slow down and engage in discussion.

In this Edutopia article, “4 strategies to help English learners master new math skills”, the first recommended strategy is “read, read again, and discuss”. This allows your students to focus on understanding the number story without worrying about the arithmetic. Then, when they have the context of the story, they can begin to focus on strategies for solving. “… strategies like these have the added benefit of getting more students talking and working together, thereby improving their overall English skills.”

Multiple reads and discussions allow students time to:

- process the information
- understand the story context
- dive into non-academic vocabulary

These all lead to an increase in reading comprehension, helping ELL students successfully access number stories.

SoE is a reading comprehension tool that helps all students think about number stories in a logical and systematic way.

One of the things that teachers find helpful about the structures is that students can only accurately create the visual representation if they have a true understanding of what’s happening in the number story. They go beyond bar models in that you can uncover misconceptions in student’s thinking based on their models and explanations of those models.

When you initially introduce the structures, a lot of time should be spent engaged in discussion around the context of the problem. As I mentioned earlier, this is one of the recommended strategies to support students who are ELL and struggle with reading comprehension. Eventually, students began to internalize these processes and learn to critically think through what problems are asking on their own.

I encourage you to explore my previous blog post, “How to help you figure out what students are asking”, for video examples and sample questions to pose during discussion.

We often think that vocabulary, both academic and general content, is the reason students learning English are challenged by number stories. Sometimes this is true, but it’s often more nuanced than that. Let’s take a look at some examples:

*Maria has 8 apples. She gives half of them to her friend Sarah. How many apples does Maria have now?*

It seems like this is pretty straightforward. Most kids have probably heard of apples, and if not, it’s easy enough to show them a picture. But let’s think about the sentence structure. The phrase “half of them” requires understanding of both mathematical language and concepts. This could impede mathematical reasoning. As teachers, it’s hard to tell if it’s the sentence structure or the fraction concept that poses an issue for ELL students.

*Jake has 12 fish in his tank. He buys 6 more fish from the pet store. How many fish does Jake have now?*

This is another number story that seems simple. When we think about each word closely, we notice that “fish” is a word with multiple meanings. It could be a noun or a verb. If the context is unclear, it will pose a reading comprehension issue. This is why discussion questions we pose with SoE such as “What’s the action in the story?” are beneficial.

Helping ELL students with reading comprehension in math is a complex undertaking. While strategies like key words seem helpful, they’re more of a crutch than a scaffold. Using tools such as Structures of Equality to engage students with number stories sets students up with the skills they need to be proficient readers and mathematicians.