Learners having to learn maths in a second language can have difficulties and make errors, both when speaking and writing in the second language. How can a teacher or a parent help in this regard?

Maths has its own specialised language, grammatical patterns, and rules, and while learners are learning English they must also learn the unique meanings that some English words have in a mathematical context. One has thus to focus on mathematical content as well as the related language skills that underpin mathematical comprehension. Learners have to be able to read and solve word problems, communicate their mathematical thinking, and work with their peers to complete a task.

In order to understand maths concepts, learners have to:

  • Understand that many common English words have unique meanings in maths: table, cone, bring down, group, pie, net, function, etc.
  • Know the meaning of complex phrases: least common multiple, equilateral triangle, etc.
  • Learn content specific maths vocabulary: digit, place value, fraction, octagons, sequences, congruent, isosceles triangle, etc.
  • Know mathematical operations that are associated with different words:
    • Subtraction = subtract, minus, less than, decrease by, take away, from, etc.
    • Addition = add, plus, and, combine, sum total of, increase by, etc.
    • Multiplication = multiply, times, product, as a factor, twice, double, triple, etc.
    • Division = divide, quotient, shared equally, over, into, equal groups, etc.
  • Understand statements and questions written in the passive voice: thirty is divided by three, etc.

Suggested strategies for teaching

Learners must have plenty of opportunities to practice talking in English about the maths they are learning. People are usually good at what they do often – ‘Practice makes perfect.’

  • Teach key vocabulary explicitly and reinforce it on an ongoing basis
  • Use simple constructions and avoid long sentences
  • Enunciate clearly and slowly and avoid using idioms and slang words
  • Repeat, rephrase, and paraphrase
  • Introduce only a few words/concepts at a time and then use them often throughout the lesson
  • Start each lesson by reviewing previous concepts learnt. This can be done by playing games, singing maths songs, maths poetry, etc.
  • Make frequent use of a variety of concrete and visual supports e.g. models, toys, maths manipulatives, pictures, charts, posters, banners, etc.
  • Have a word wall, flash cards and mathematical notebooks where each concept is used in a sentence, has a definition, picture/diagram, description, and even a native language translation if possible
  • Use the active tense (‘Peter gave me fifteen rand’) rather than the passive tense (‘I was given fifteen rand by Peter’)
  • Use real examples and illustrations to develop new concepts
  • Ask your learners any questions thus compelling them to speak as much English as possible. Ask individual learners questions so that each class member is encouraged to speak on their own. Give them enough time to give an answer or ask them to discuss the question in pairs to come up with an answer
  • Use consistent formats for assignments, worksheets and tests
  • Give directions step-by-step, orally, and in writing
  • Integrate the four language modes (listening, speaking, reading, writing) into your lesson
  • Talk aloud while solving problems on the board to show the thinking process and common errors
  • Check often for comprehension

Learner activities to improve understanding

  • Have learners restate other learners’ comments, asking a question or adding their own idea
  • Have learners translate symbols into words and write the sentence out: e.g.  4x – 10 = 20 would be ‘Four times x minus ten equals twenty’
  • Encourage learners to use graphic organisers, diagrams, gestures, and sketches to aid thinking and communicating with others
  • Create sentence frames: for e.g. ‘The answer is _______________ degrees because it is a _______________ triangle’
  • Help learners make sense out of word problems by giving them the following tips:
    • Circle important numbers
    • Underline words or phrases that indicate the type of operations to use
    • Highlight words or phrases that indicate what the problem is asking
  • Have learners discuss the problem and its operations with a peer
  • Provide handouts that help learners structure and guide their work: for e.g. skeleton notes and summaries

Do not correct learners’ English too much. It can be embarrassing and discouraging and what you really want is to build up their confidence.

Suffolk, J. (2004). Teaching Primary Mathematics. Johannesburg: Macmillan Education.