April 19, 2024

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Math Word Problems in an ESL Classroom

As a math teacher in Asia, I face the same problem day in day out. My students cannot do math word problems. They simply don’t understand them. And I am not talking about those 2, 3 students that would even correct their teacher, no I am talking about the majority of my students.

Word problems are the heart of my subject; they give meaning to the numbers and relate to our daily life practices. 2 times 2 doesn’t mean anything, but 2 apples of 2 dollars each does! Math and conceptualization walk hand in hand.

Most of the teachers at my school seem to be jealous with me because teaching math is supposed to be so easy to teach in our ESL setting. Math is easy because it’s all about the numbers, and those are universal. True, but this response overlooks the representation, or perception, of numbers. Math is all about solving problems and requires academic reading skills.

Our school is a humble school in Thailand and like many schools in this beautiful country the importance of English as a global language is recognized. EP schools, or English Programs, are mushrooming in all provinces. For considerable tuition fees, young Thais learn all subjects, except Thai of course, in English. This sounds great in terms of development and global thinking, but comes with risks.

Thai students are not fluent in English. They actually have poor English skills. International assessment studies demonstrate weak English skills, which is not really a surprise. The Thai language has no resemblance with English and outside school, and at home, only Thai is spoken.

So how can students in Thailand learn school subjects like social studies, science and math in English without missing the point? This is the million dollar question. How can teachers, school administrators and parents expect these children to learn concepts when the delivery of information is not understood?

Word problems are perceived as difficult by students. It requires students to read and analyze problems in order to come up with the necessary methodology. A fantastic example of such a problem, is a question from my fourth grade math book:

“The entrance fee of a trade exhibition is $12.40. On Monday 250 people visited the exhibition and on Tuesday 200 people more than on Monday visited the trade exhibition. How much money was collected in entrance fees on both days?”

As understandable, the majority of the students will struggle with this problem. Mathematically, 3 steps are involved: addition, again addition and multiplication. Not easy for a fourth grader, but the biggest challenge is not the mathematical operations, no it’s the language used. How can any young learner relate to trade exhibitions? And how many native English students can actually spell the word exhibition correctly? Now imagine Thai students and the difficulty for teachers to explain this problem. So much time will be wasted on explaining words like trade, exhibition and visitors.

So how can we teach these problems to ESL students from Thailand, or anywhere for that matter? First, throw away your book! Any book with problems like the one above are not suited for young learners and not at all for ESL students. Second: rewrite your material. Use easier language, talk to the English teachers and use the vocabulary taught in their lessons.

The same problem as above can be rewritten as follows:

“The price of 1 ice-cream is $2.40. A shop sold 250 ice-creams on Monday. On Tuesday the shop sold 200 ice-creams more than on Monday. How much money did the shop earn on both days?”

With these words the problems has become a math problem again and most students will understand the meaning of it. Whether they can solve it or not, now becomes a mathematical issue and not one of (non-existent) academic reading skills.

Teaching word problems to non-native English students is a challenge, but not impossible. There are may websites out there with great sources. Don’t give up on your students. When math is only about numbers, it will never make any meaning!