Is Maths really a universal language for EAL learners?

Try your own ‘Introduce Me’ activity
21st March 2019
An Edtech Pilot – using the Sentence Analyser
5th June 2019
Try your own ‘Introduce Me’ activity
21st March 2019
An Edtech Pilot – using the Sentence Analyser
5th June 2019

Is Maths really a universal language for EAL learners?

Author: Yasmin Malik, Senior Education Consultant

Maths is often a subject that is not given the same priority as others when it comes to the teaching of learners with English as an additional language (EAL). You may have heard the statement that maths is a universal language: there is often an expectation that EAL learners will be able to access the subject in the same way as their monolingual peers, without being given any additional consideration. However, there is much evidence-based research to indicate that this curriculum area can pose many challenges for EAL learners.

‘How can mathematical attainment be fairly assessed if learners are still developing their proficiency in English? If learners of EAL find word problems hard to make sense of, for example, they may get them wrong, particularly in a test situation. Would such incorrect responses fairly indicate the learner’s mathematical or linguistic proficiency?’

The difficulty of word problems

The difficulty of accessing word problems – encompassing both the specific language of maths and more general language – is a key issue. EAL learners may struggle with an understanding of number systems and notation, with teaching and learning styles and with identification of their own learning gaps.

Are numbers and numerals the same across number systems in different languages?

The most commonly used number system is the Hindu-Arabic set of 10 numerals 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 and 0. These originated in India, but can look and sound very different in other languages.

Even where the numerals in English and in other languages look similar, they may be pronounced very differently. For example, the number 1 (one) in English looks similar to 1 in Arabic, but the word for the latter is wāḥid ( ﻮﺍﺣﺪ ). To complicate matters, some numerals resemble others in English – but not the right numerals! The number 1 in Punjabi, for instance, is ੧ (ikk -ਇੱਕ), which looks more like a 9 in English. It is easy to see how difficulties might arise if a teacher assumes that a learner has a shared understanding of a particular numeral.

How are concepts expressed in written form in other languages?

Similarly, ways of expressing mathematical concepts through use of notation can leave EAL learners confused. In Polish, for example, the ÷ (division) symbol is ‘:’, so 8÷2=4 in Polish is expressed as 8:2=4. In Arabic, the same calculation would be expressed as 8/2 = 4. Some languages use a comma instead of a decimal point: 5.6 in Polish is shown as 5,6. It is therefore important for practitioners to be aware of the first languages of their EAL learners and of how the number systems and notation work in these.

How do EAL learners cope with mathematical vocabulary?

Words with multiple meanings, depending on the context, and homophones, can often be problematic for EAL learners – such words need to be identified and taught explicitly, in order to address misconceptions. Recently, at a CPD INSET day, a staff member shared how she had asked a monolingual learner to draw a table in his maths book. He drew a table with four legs, highlighting that he did not understand the word in the mathematical context. 

Likewise, during the teaching of a Y4 class where the majority of learners were EAL, it became apparent that learners struggled with the word ‘complement’ in the mathematical context. Some confused it with the word ‘compliment’, while others did not know either word. It was therefore important to have an initial discussion about these words, with the learners discussing and putting the words in sentences to enable them to clarify their meanings, before they could apply them in a mathematical context.

To enable learners to become confident and articulate, it’s important for them to hear maths vocabulary used in full sentences (including in their own voice). Sentence stems are a good way of scaffolding learners’ speaking and listening. Such stems could include things like:

  • The complement of 5/8 is …
  • I know this because …
  • If ¾ plus ¼ is a whole, then I know …


Useful resources

On the Learning Village, the Sentence Analyser feature allows teachers to create their own substitution tables for sentences in all subjects, including maths. Another helpful resource is the Language for Maths books by Graham Smith of the EAL Academy (more details here).

For further details of effective strategies around language for maths, with resources, see the Better Bilingual CPD session on maths and EAL, in collaboration with the BPTSA (Bristol Primary Teaching School Alliance) here.

How do EAL learners adjust to different teaching and learning styles?

Unfamiliar teaching and learning styles can be a further challenge for EAL learners. If a learner has been used to a very formal style, for instance, with a lot of rote-learning, they may not feel comfortable initially with working in groups and expressing opinions.

How can the mathematical learning needs of our EAL learners be best addressed?

It is important to remember that every EAL learner is unique and will be at a different place in their learning journey. It is crucial to consider carefully how to build on the existing experiences of learners. Using translated and transliterated words in learners’ first languages, for instance, indicate to them that their experiences are valued, activate their prior knowledge and link learning to what the learners already know. As in other subject areas, ongoing planning for the explicit teaching of subject-specific (maths) vocabulary and reasoning language, including language structures, is of the essence. Accurate data must also be collected about learners, to inform teaching and learning, identify gaps, and enable learners to feel included.

Download the free EAL resource accompanying this article by clicking on the buttons at the top and bottom of this article.


NALDIC, How to support EAL learners in mathematics, available here.

Multilingual Typesetting, Numbers in Different Languages: Typesetting Multilingual Numerals, available here.

The EAL Academy, Language for Maths, available here.

Better Bilingual, available here.

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