Teaching mathematics to children with English as an additional language (EAL) can be a difficult task. EAL pupils will often struggle with maths and teachers may find it a struggle to overcome the language barrier, but Lorraine Barber has some helpful tips

The importance of mathematical language can never be underestimated and we have been reminded in the recent Williams review of its importance in developing our pupil’s mathematical skills and understanding. The importance is stressed on a number of occasions in the review of simply talking about mathematics and of recognising that maths itself is in some respects a new language – with this key message in mind we need to ensure all our children have opportunities to discuss their mathematics and how for our children with English as an additional language (EAL), we will need to support and scaffold their opportunities to enable these pupils to participate, communicate and reason in mathematics. In considering the needs of our vast range of EAL pupils in our schools who need their language skills developed, we must remember that these pupils are often very capable mathematicians but their skills are sometimes under estimated due to the initial language barrier.

As teachers, we need to ensure our lesson opportunities meet the needs of all our learners which is increasingly challenging. The range of support we provide for our pupils is personalized to the children and needs the full cooperation of the pupil, teacher and their parents and carers this is especially important when working with EAL children. It is those initial discussions that have enabled me to understand the culture of the child, family background, school history and the level of English speaking adults within the family and therefore guided me to plan the resources and program of study which would best support the learning needs of that child within my class.

EAL children have not got special educational needs and are often very able mathematicians but the language in mathematics is their barrier to either solving the calculation or problem. As teachers it is important to diagnose when an error is caused by language proficiency or a mathematical difficulty. We must keep our expectation high and ensure the opportunities we provide enable the children to be challenged and also enable them to access the mathematics. They do not need to do ‘simpler’ mathematics only ‘clearer’ mathematics and we need to provide opportunities that enable them to engage with the learning and convey and develop their mathematical ability.

Creating a welcoming climate

Some EAL learners often lack confidence having moved from one country to another or simply from one school to another. The first issue is to support them (as we do with any new pupils) and show them how welcoming the school environment is and allow time for familiarity with school routines and language around the school. Signs and signposts that would enable them to become confident in moving around school and the support of a friendly class buddy to guide and make friends
with is ideal.

Many pupils may have attended very formal schools and now enter into a classroom where the timetable is more varied and may need a visual timetable initially to access the routine. Pupils can find it daunting entering into a new environment where a more open classroom climate has been successfully developed allowing pupils to discuss and share ideas and where children work in pairs and groups with confidence, these issues need to be considered in ensuring new pupils integrate happily in to our classes and build confidence and are then ‘ready then for learning’.

Language support

Within our daily lessons of course the main difficulty is the limited knowledge of our language EAL children have to access the content of the mathematics lesson. Therefore, it is important to make the content of our lessons accessible and in context with the experiences that our EAL pupils have had.

Real-life number activities and problem solving using shopping items they are familiar with, alongside our other provisions, will help pupils to engage and access the mathematics. A few items I bought from a Polish supermarket recently enabled pupils with limited English to access the mathematics and engage in the problems with the whole class. It also brings in lots of opportunity to discuss the items, drawing pupils into conversations, discussing their culture and helps to celebrate their ethnicity. Picture resources can be created to allow pupils to choose items from a menu where they have a certain amount of money to spend, if the items reflect a range of EAL children’s foods as well as our traditional food then pupils will engage and access better what they have to do.

It is also worth remembering that like many of our English-speaking children the opportunity to handle real money regularly in daily life is quite limited nowadays and that these pupils are unfamiliar with our coins and values. This is an area where extra support can be invaluable from a teaching assistant or parent in reinforcing an aspect like this, which may be essential knowledge for a future lesson. Coins and their numerical value should be displayed and the appropriate words, eg a picture of the coin – the symbol £1 – and the word one pound should be available for pupils to see. Mathematical language can also be learnt through songs and rhymes in the early years and are still valuable auditory stimuli to practice basic vocabulary in Key Stage 2.


The understanding of our number system is key to unlocking potential in all mathematical areas. Our number system itself is not the easiest to learn.

The grasp of numbers to 10 is not too daunting, but when we reach those ‘teens’ numbers from 11 and move to 20 each number is a new word to learn. 11 being ‘tenty one’ and 12 being ‘tenty two’ would be much more accessible then we wouldn’t have to learn new vocabulary and when we got to 20, then twenty one would fit in quite comfortably. But, unfortunately, it is not that regular!

Unfortunately, even the decade numbers can be a minefield, with twenty a new word, thirty being a new word, forty is nearly like forty but spelt wrong then fifty is not fivety so another new word too! Luckily from 60 onwards we have more regularity and you often hear and see children quite confidently joining in from 60 to 100 when counting in tens. So enabling EAL children to understand our numerical system is vital. Once children are secure with this, we can enable pupils to access mathematical symbols and a wider range of mathematics. The structured number line showing a linear view of our number progression rather than a 100 square can support pupils in visually seeing how numbers become larger as we move from left to right on the number line. This number line can then be used in developing calculation methods and help pupils model how they have tackled a calculation or problem.

Resources to support calculation are essential. Children may need bead strings or structured number lines to support them in conveying their strategies.

The range of vocabulary we use in mathematics and the many meanings the words have can be confusing for EAL pupils words such as take away, scale, match and table etc have different meaning is different contexts so it is important to ensure pupils have a clear understanding of the use and context in the lesson, explain its meaning prior to the lesson if necessary.

Mathematical signs

The mathematical signs + x ÷ – are very visible and can be accessed and used by EAL pupils to develop strong mathematical skills, but the variety of language attached to each symbol needs further support to develop. Cards with mathematical signs and the words we read and use to convey that sign must be seen by EAL pupils and can be created to attract pupil interest. Mathematical vocabulary cards, similar to the one below, reviewed regularly and accessed in lessons can enable pupils to contribute to mathematical discussions and decode problems they are tackling.

Mathematical discussions

Enabling EAL pupils to access mathematical discussions can be supported with talk prompts that are visual and easy to convey their opinions on whether an answer is correct, if they agree with the working out they see, the method or answer given etc. These recent prompts enabled pupils to decide whether all the solutions to a problem were found and gave ownership to the pupils to make decisions on the answers they had found in a group. The visual picture allowed pupils to sort the negative responses from the positive ones.

In conclusion

The difficulties that EAL children initially have with language can be overcome and data conveys how they achieve at an accelerated progress when there is well-planned provision to support their learning and good inclusive learning and teaching practice.

Useful books

  • Handa’s Hen, by Eileen Browne.
  • A Caribbean Counting Book, by Faustin Charles and Roberta Arenson.
  • Mama Panya’s Pancakes, by Mary and Rich Chamberlin.
  • One child One Seed: A South African Counting Book, by Kathryn Cave.

Further resources

  • Assessment toolkit to support pupils with English as an additional language DFES 0319/2002.