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- Math Word Problems in an ESL Classroom
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## Math Word Problems in an ESL Classroom

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

Word problems are the heart of my subject; they give meaning to numbers and relate to our everyday practices. 2 times 2 means nothing, but 2 apples at $2 each does! Mathematics and conceptualization go hand in hand.

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

Our school is a humble school in Thailand and, like many schools in this beautiful country, recognizes the importance of English as a global language. EP schools, or English language programs, are growing in every province. 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 it carries risks.

Thai students are not fluent in English. In fact, they have poor English skills. International assessment studies show weak English skills, which is not really a surprise. The Thai language bears no resemblance to English and outside of school, only Thai is spoken at home.

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

Word problems are perceived as difficult by students. It requires students to read and analyze problems in order to achieve the necessary methodology. A great example of this problem is a question from my fourth grade math book:

“The price of a ticket to a trade show is $12.40. On Monday, 250 people visited the trade show, and on Tuesday, 200 more people visited the trade show than on Monday. How much money was collected in tickets for both days?”

Understandably, most students will struggle with this problem. Mathematically, there are 3 steps: addition, addition again and multiplication. It’s not easy for a fourth grader, but the biggest challenge isn’t the math operations, it’s not the language used. How can a young apprentice relate to trade shows? And how many native English learners can spell the word exposure correctly? Now imagine the Thai students and teachers’ difficulty in explaining this problem. A lot of time will be wasted explaining words like trade, exhibition and visitors.

So how can we teach these problems to ESL students in Thailand or elsewhere? First, throw away your book! Any book with problems like the above is not suitable for young students and not at all for ESL students. Second: Rewrite your material. Use easier language, talk to English teachers and use the vocabulary taught in class.

The same problem above can be rewritten as follows:

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

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

Teaching word problems to non-native English learners is challenging, but not impossible. There are many websites with great sources. Don’t give up on your students. When mathematics is only about numbers, it will never have any meaning!

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