Teaching Math to Diverse Students

Instructor: Jesse Richter

Jesse holds two masters, a doctorate and has 15 years of academic experience in areas of education, linguistics, business and science across five continents.

Diverse student populations challenge teachers to meet all students' learning needs. This lesson discusses diversity in the math classroom and offers ideas for differentiating your instruction to meet unique student needs.

Supporting Diversity in Math Instruction

Teaching math can be challenging, especially with mixed learning styles and ability levels.

Have you even been stuck wondering how to accommodate unique student populations as you teach math? Most of us have been there. Let's start by setting the stage.

Math is one subject that has a reputation of being difficult to learn and teach. In addition, the classroom landscape is uniquely different from what we saw only a handful of years ago; we now have higher expectations from policy makers, parents, and administrators, as well as increasingly diverse student populations.

These factors make it particularly important for educators to be alert and sensitive to the complex and perpetually shifting needs of today's students. The modern classroom often hosts students with varying levels of prior experience, learning styles, family backgrounds, cultural norms, personal interests, socioeconomic statuses, and special needs.

Let's take a look at some key concepts pertaining to diverse students and how to support them while they're learning math.

A Global Perspective

One way to embrace diversity when teaching arithmetic and geometry concepts is to use a world map or globe with corresponding country data. Model the activity by revealing the surface areas of a few different countries and have students estimate values for other nations. You may end up with an ordered list which can then be used to make simplified visuals such as drawing proportional shapes on paper. This allows students to think beyond the current geographical context.

Many extension activities are possible. For example, you can use the country size data to discuss fractions, percentages, and proportions. Another idea is to integrate country population size data into these lessons. Lastly, look for opportunities to integrate cultural artifacts into instruction. For example, try making a simple foreign recipe in the classroom to teach measuring, proportions, and ratios for younger students, or use currency value data to teach conversions with more advanced students.


Unique Problem Solving

To discover and accommodate different learning styles, give the entire class a math challenge and allow students to solve the problem in any way. For example, you might challenge partners or small teams to make as many airplanes from one sheet of paper as possible. This would be part of a geometry lesson and would allow each group to approach the problem with a different way of reasoning. You are likely to discover many different ways of thinking. To come full-circle, have each group present their method to the entire class.

Friendly competitions, such as paper puzzle races, help to support diverse learning styles.

English Language Learners

English Language Learners (ELLs) include anyone who is not a native speaker of English. In the classroom, it is common to see students who have come from different countries and/or who use their mother tongue everywhere except while in school. ELLs may be able to comprehend math concepts easily, but may struggle with the language.

Consider providing a list of math vocabulary with English translations for your ELL students. Also, consider alternative assessment methods such as allowing ELLs to draw pictures and diagrams to demonstrate comprehension of likely concepts. For example, you might test a student's understanding of geometrical degrees by having them make various points around a circle. Lastly, try to keep English simple and concise, especially in written forms such as with worksheets and paper-based assessments.

Remember that some students may be non-native speakers of English.


Manipulatives (anything that allows students to manually interact with instructional materials) generally benefit all students, but are particularly useful for diverse student populations. Think about how you can downplay traditional teaching methods such as lecturing and rote memorization and instead consider using tangible, hands-on materials to support diverse learning styles. Here are a few examples:

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