Math and ESOL, A Winning Combination

Pam Meader is a math consultant for TERC in Cambridge, Massachusetts and a national math trainer for LINCS. Pam is co-facilitator of the Mathematizing ESOL series serving as the math expert. She is co-author of the Hands on Math series from Walch Publishing and is a member of ANN, Adult Numeracy Network.


Integrating curriculum is nothing new to ESOL teachers, but many times ESOL teachers feel less prepared to discuss math topics with their learners. Many ESOL teachers may not feel comfortable with math themselves, as math was taught procedurally requiring memorization to get through a math class. Since the Mathematizing ESOL series was introduced three years ago, some ESOL teachers have approached this course with trepidation but soon found their fears diminished. There were many reasons for this change.

First, many participants appreciated the experiential approach to teaching math topics: using manipulatives, incorporating visuals such as number lines, and acting out a problem directly related to approaches ESOL teachers were already utilizing in their classrooms.  They also appreciated the real-life context for introducing math such as creating budgets and shopping, tasks that were already part of the ESOL curriculum. As one participant wrote, “The content of the course and the teaching strategies validated a lot of the work I’m already doing, which makes me feel that I’m on track.”

Secondly, the course provided insight into better ways to teach math concepts than ways the teachers may have experienced as learners themselves. Teaching conceptually, making the math more accessible or more challenging, realizing the different ways to think about numbers and operations, and being more aware of various math notations or strategies used in other countries, helped deepen teachers‘ understanding. “The different algorithms, commas, decimals, etc. were interesting and informative. I found myself struggling with some of the various formats and it was a good lesson on how my students must sometimes feel.”

Many participants have already started implementing ideas from the course into their classrooms. “My class did a shopping activity today, and I introduced estimation prior to asking for a total spent. That step made the activity more accessible for all students.”

“Soon after completing the exercises to explore the meaning of subtraction, I had a lesson on completing a timesheet in 15-minute increments. We would calculate the total time for various blocks of time worked. While I was demonstrating how to add them, some of the students were taking the blocks of time to the next full hour and then subtracting the quarter increments. We were able to discuss the different ways of calculating the timesheet to reach the correct answer. This course helped me see the various ways subtraction could be used and I was comfortable working with the students from their perspectives.”

Another strong component of the Mathematizing ESOL series was building a community of ESOL practitioners. Many responded that they enjoyed sharing ideas with other colleagues and learned new ideas as well. “I enjoyed reading what other teachers are doing in class, their discussion, and your comments.”

You could feel as upbeat about math as the teachers who have participated in the Mathematizing ESOL series. We hope you will consider enrolling in Mathematizing ESOL, beginning with MESOL I. As one participant shared, “This course was the first time that I was really exposed to ideas and strategies for how to integrate math into an ESOL classroom….Prior to this course, I was a bit intimidated by the prospect, but the class has helped me to recognize both the necessity for teaching math as well as some concrete ways to contextualize it so that it remains relevant to learners (and can still be seen as a part of ‘English class’).”

Learn more about the Mathematizing ESOL series:

One thought on “Math and ESOL, A Winning Combination”

  1. Hi Pam,

    I feel like you were writing about me! I took Mathematizing ESOL 1 with you and Sherry Lehane, and as a math-uncomfortable person, found it relaxing. Especially helpful were explanations of how other education systems do math, examples of math problems that fit naturally into typical ESOL classes, the videos of working with students, and the opportunity to work through approaches with colleagues with your guidance.

    (I am not a paid spokesperson.)

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