Choosing Math Tasks for ELLs

This is the first of my #ShareMathEdResearch summaries. This is a work in progress. I welcome comments and questions on the format. Is it helpful? Are there other things that would be helpful to know? Are there some parts that aren’t necessary? Is this a helpful summary for practitioners and the public? Etc.


This article is from my dissertation study and focused on how high school math teachers taught English learners.

de Araujo, Z. (2017). Connections between secondary mathematics teachers’ beliefs and their selection of tasks for English language learners. Curriculum Inquiry, 47, 363–389.


Teachers often take a seemingly common sense approach to teaching mathematics with English learners, but that approach can result in students working on less interesting and meaningful math.

Why did I do the study?

When I was a high school mathematics teacher in Orlando, Florida I taught a lot of English learners, but I did not teach them well. I didn’t know how to make math accessible without dumbing it down. There are reports that almost all U.S. teachers teach English learners, but we still don’t know much about how teachers choose problems and resources for English learners. I thought this study would provide some much needed insight in this area so I can help teachers who teach math with English learners.

What/who did I study?

Three teachers allowed me to learn from them. Each teacher taught a ninth-grade math class for English learners. The English learners were from different countries (including the US), but mostly spoke Spanish as their first language. The students also had different levels of English proficiency; some could speak, understand, write, and read in English while others were still learning.

I observed the teachers’ lessons for about two weeks. Before and after each lesson I interviewed them about their plans and how they thought it went. I also took field notes and did a couple of final interviews after the two weeks were up.

What did I find and why does it matter?

I found that the teachers did a lot of the things I did as a teacher. They took out words/language because they didn’t want to complicate the mathematics. However, math and language are connected. Math learning involves (and requires) talking, listening, reading, and writing about math. Also, more complex math problems tend to have more language, so taking away the language usually results in easier math (not always a good thing). The result is that many of the students participated in less meaningful and complex math.

I also found that we (I include myself in this) tend to talk about English learners as a single group of students. Each student is different in terms of the knowledge and resources they bring to the classroom. English learners vary greatly in their English proficiency. We need to know our students so we can draw on their prior knowledge and meet their individual needs.

Finally, I found (as have others before me) that our beliefs impact our practice greatly. We need to regularly check ourselves to make sure we are forming positive beliefs about our students. If we don’t believe our students can do something, they probably won’t because we won’t let them. If we believe they can do something, we will try our hardest to make it so.

What are my big take aways?

We can’t remove language from math. Instead of thinking about how to make language easier, we need to think about how to help students learn math and language (even if we are math teachers). Whenever we focus on only math or only language, we are not truly supporting English learners.

I also learned that I need to try out some specific practices in schools with teachers and students so we can see what actually works. I know a lot about what doesn’t work, so now we need to know more about what does work.

Other Resources

When I was a guest on Sam Otten’s Math Ed Podcast I talked about this article. You can listen here.

Two books on teaching math with English learners that I really like.

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