Teaching Math to ESL Students | Cambly Kids Edition

Teaching math to ESL students doesn’t have to be a headache, I promise.

I have a confession. I’m a nerd. I love math. I can hear a lot of you saying, “Nope!” “Not me!” “I’m terrible with numbers!” Well, I beg to differ. 

You are not bad at math. 

We use numbers every single day in our adult lives. Maybe not the quadratic formula, but I certainly use percentages when calculating the tip at a restaurant or simple addition and subtraction when grocery shopping. Or how about every Monday when we get our Paypal notification, and we read the dollar amount we have received.

Let’s face it. Math is an essential part of our lives. For that reason, I try to incorporate math into a lot of my classes, and over the years, I’ve gained a ton of ELL strategies for math.

It’s so easy to do, and there’s very little preparation. I generally use it as a warm-up activity. Or if there are a few minutes to kill after we’ve finished the Cambly lesson.

Teaching 4 Key Math Topics to Young ESL Learners

Here are a few ways to bring some arithmetic into your classes!

1. Reading Numbers

So anything that involves numbers, I consider math. 

How to pronounce them, write them, and say them in order. 

If it’s the very first class and the student is young, open the whiteboard. Write “1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10.” Read the numbers and have the student repeat. Then count down “10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 Blastoff!” Most kids with limited English ability will know 1 through 10. This activity is great because it requires absolutely zero prep. 

Another great warm-up is to have the student count 1-100, and you clap along. Easy peasy!

Here’s a fun activity that involves saying numbers out loud to solve a picture puzzle.

My son’s elementary school class always begins their day by going over the calendar during morning meetings. The picture below shows an example of the calendar they study.

Using the calendar is a great way to introduce/review ordinal numbers (1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc.). Many of my students also struggle with reading the year 2021. So we fill it out together, and then I will ask the student to read the calendar and weather for me. This is a very productive use of time that is both fun and educational.

The goal of these seemingly easy activities is to have the students start the class with confidence and happiness.

If you’re curious about how to motivate your students inside and outside the classroom, check out this article by Tutor Diana.

2. Addition, Subtraction, Multiplication & Division

The whiteboard in the Cambly Kids classroom is a great tool and just a click away! Use the whiteboard to write easy addition problems.

For little ones (6 and under), they say the answer, and we move on to another problem, “3 + 1 =_”. 

For older kids who are beyond addition and subtraction, I ask them to say the whole sentence, “two plus two equals four.” Trust me. Your math skills are good enough for a 6-year old!

Older students love to be challenged and have a chance to show off. Give them a two-digit subtraction problem. Move to multiplication and division problems. Teach them how to read 8 ÷ 4 =. You know this! But just in case, in the US, we would say eight divided by four equals.

If you want a little more professional looking than a whiteboard, go to Google, type “Addition math worksheet.” Click images. Click on a worksheet. Maybe a few more clicks to select a worksheet. Share screen. Here’s what one google search brought up for me. 

The goal of these activities is to break the ice, even after I’ve asked them how their day was, if they had dinner, and what they did in school today because that’s just small talk. Often, the student needs a little more to get them into online learning mode. The math ice breaker indicates to them that it’s time to pay attention. 

3. Clock Reading

Did you know that telling time on an analog clock is taught in all the English academies in Asia? This is something your students may know but don’t have opportunities to use what they’ve learned.

This exercise aims to build and use time-specific vocabulary – shorthand, longhand, o’clock, half past, quarter to, morning, afternoon, night, midnight, and noon. 

You can stretch this warmup activity out for as long as you want and ask questions such as: 

  • What time do you usually wake up? 
  • What time do you go to bed? 
  • When is dinner time? 

It’s also an excellent opportunity to practice the simple present tense to talk about daily routines. For more advanced students, you can ask questions using the past and future tenses. 

  • What did you do yesterday at 9 pm? 
  • What will you do tomorrow morning?

4. Word Problems

Teens with higher levels of English would probably benefit from math word problems. This is where it might get tricky for tutors who are not so confident with their math abilities.

But I never choose anything that I can’t solve myself. Here’s a word problem I recently shared with a 10-year old student from Korea.

For her reading assignment, Ashley read 27 pages on Saturday, and another 23 on Sunday. How many pages did she read over the weekend?

Ask the student to read the problem out loud. Then wait and give them time to think of the solution, which is an effective way to work on reading comprehension

Do you have students who are great at reading but have low comprehension? It’s so common! 

Reading this word problem will help the student pick out what is essential and what is not. This is called active reading, and they have to identify the important elements to answer the question actively.

What do you think about teaching math to ESL students now? Yay or nay?

Let’s be clear here – you aren’t teaching them how to do the math. Nope. Your goal is to introduce/review math language. You are an adult, and every one of you is capable of simple arithmetic, reading numbers, and telling time.

My lessons are engaging, dynamic and varied. If you make math fun, it’s like a game. And what’s better than learning English through play? I love that I can introduce math problems with almost no prep. Kids know math! We are just showing them math in English!

I love using math in my classes, and I really think you would too! I stay away from specific topics like fractions and square roots and usually anything above division. You are teaching pronunciation, vocabulary, and comprehension. 

As long as your aim is clear to you, including math in your warm-up or post-lesson activity should be easy and enjoyable for you and your student.

P.S. I use math with my adult students as well. They love it because it’s challenging for them to say numbers in English. Hmm, maybe I’ll write a blog on that later. 🤔 

Some valuable resources for teaching math to young ESL students

If you need any other resources for teaching ESL students, check out this blog by my friend Meagan where she covers 9 free ESL resources for teachers!

About the Writer
Connie is a SuperTutor on Cambly who was born and raised in New York City. She loves tutoring so much that she tutors seven days a week. Connie loves meeting new people and discovering what makes us the same and how we are different. She loves laughing with her students and believes that one of the reasons students keep coming back to her is the strong rapport she builds with each student.

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