Adaptations & Modifications for ELL Students in Math

Instructor: Sarah Mills

Sarah is an educational freelance writer and has taught English and ESL in grades k-12 and college. She has a master's degree in both Literacy and TESOL.

In this lesson, teachers will learn some adaptations to use in math class for English language learner (ELL) students. Some strategies that will be discussed include how to teach math vocabulary using manipulatives and other approaches.

Math for ELL Students

Math concepts are universal, meaning that the basic principles of algebra, geometry, and other subjects are the same from one country to the next. Many people assume that because the concepts are the same, ELL students who don't speak English should have no problem with math class in the United States.

While it may be true that math is generally much easier for some ELL students than language arts or history, math class still requires English listening, speaking, reading, and writing proficiency skills.

Let's look at some strategies for adapting math instruction to accommodate ELL students.

Math Vocabulary

A common problem that many students face when acquiring a new language is a test question that asks them to 'find x.' One student interprets the word 'find' literally and circles the 'x' on the page.

The issue is that many English words have multiple meanings. Unless students are explicitly taught the context for different words, they may be confused.

Let's look at some examples of words with multiple meanings as they apply to math.

  • Ruler: Someone who leads a country or something you use for measuring
  • Mean: Not nice or the average of a set of numbers
  • Volume: The degree of loudness or the amount of space that something occupies
  • Table: Where you eat meals or a chart that you analyze
  • Expression: Sharing your thoughts and feelings or a mathematical phrase, such as 45 + x
  • Odd: Strange or numbers such as 1, 3, and 5
  • Even: Smooth or a number divisible by 2

Consider previewing math word problems before assigning them to identify potentially challenging vocabulary. You could also use some of the following activities.

Illustrated Word Wall

One way to help students remember math vocabulary is to create a classroom word wall that includes visual reinforcements. For example, next to the word 'graph', include a picture of a bar graph. Next to the word 'octagon', include a picture of a stop sign. You can even have students illustrate the pictures themselves.

Frayer Model

Have students use the Frayer model, a graphic organizer, to learn new math vocabulary. In this activity, students write a vocabulary word in the center of a blank piece of paper. Then, they divide the paper into four quadrants: an upper-left and upper-right quadrant and a lower-left and lower-right quadrant.

The Frayer Model
Frayer model2

Each quadrant contains one piece of information about the vocabulary word in the center. You can choose from some of the following categories:

  • Definitions
  • Examples
  • Non-examples
  • Characteristics
  • Drawings
  • Synonyms
  • Antonyms


Manipulatives are physical items that can be picked up, moved, and manipulated. They can help provide something tangible for students to use when trying to work through math problems. Some examples of manipulatives are:

  • Color tiles
  • Snap cubes
  • Tangrams
  • Two-color counters
  • Dice
  • Base ten blocks
  • Protractors
  • Rulers
  • Calculators


Allow ELL students to work with partners and in small groups to solve math problems. This gives them an opportunity to hear the way other students use math vocabulary in context, and it also helps promote oral language development.

One strategy for cooperative learning is the think-pair-share. Here are the steps for this method:

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