Helping ELLs Master the Dreaded Word Problem

Dean has a recipe for lemonade. To make 14 servings, Dean will need 4 cups of lemon juice. How many ounces of lemon juice will Dean need if he wants to make 35 servings?

Students in the United States are taught to complete the following steps when solving a word problem like this:

  1. Read the entire problem.
  2. Determine what the question is.
  3. Find the information needed to solve the problem.
  4. Determine what operation is necessary to answer the question.
  5. Solve the problem.
  6. Check to make sure the answer is reasonable.

The steps seem clear, but English language learners often struggle with steps one and two. This is particularly true when the problem revolves around non-metric measurements such as cups, quarts, or inches. Consequently, the remaining steps are lost in translation.

Working Together

English language learners are hard workers and strive to be successful, yet the language of mathematics often frustrates them. In the word problem above, an English language learner may understand that a cup is used to drink from, but may not understand a cup as a means of measurement.

Mathematics books in the students’ native language are helpful, but the help is enhanced when English language learners are paired with more fluent English speakers who can translate and explain in the native language. With the help of a partner, the limited English speaker can discuss and understand the rationale behind the words and their meanings. They can solve problems together.

Recognizing Vocabulary

Neither ELL nor English-proficient students like word problems because they find them to be long and confusing with vocabulary that doesn’t make sense. It is easy enough for ELL students to distinguish between add, plus, and minus, but when confronted with words like quotient and product, they are likely to have trouble.

A foldable is an interactive graphic organizer students can use to become more familiar with difficult math terms. Students fold a piece of paper such that the vocabulary word is written on the “tab” and is visible. The definition of the word is hidden beneath the tab. (See for sample foldables.)

By creating their own foldables, students can reinforce key topics in the math curriculum. Not only are students seeing a math word in context, they are also writing the words (which reinforces learning) and referring to them as a study aid.

Group Effort

Today’s math class is not about simply solving a two-step equation; it’s about reading for meaning, identifying a situation, finding the information for the problem, setting up the equation, and then solving the equation.

How many middle grades teachers does it take to help all our students learn and understand math? All of us!

Previously published in Middle Ground Magazine, October 2010

Diana Picchi Cwynar is a math teacher at Harris Road Middle School in Concord, North Carolina. E-mail:

Susan Hewett, is a math teacher at J.N. Fries Middle School in Concord, North Carolina. E-mail:


  1. I had never thought about ELL students struggling with math due to the the saying that math is a universal language. This article made me realize that math is not universal, especially when dealing with word problems. As a Spanish teacher, it can be hard to get your colleagues to incorporate ELL learning strategies into their classroom. Any kind of resource such as the foldable is great for ELL students to be able to use and manipulate, and us Spanish teachers should help other content area teachers with helpful strategies.

  2. I feel that identifying this problem early in the students school year helps them with being more successful in the content. This article brings up some great points when it comes to helping assist our students who are ELL. Imagine going into a language that you have little to no knowledge of and being taught content on top of learning the language. This is the experience of many of the ELL present in our classrooms. I like the resource of the foldable when trying to build knowledge of academic language, in this case words associated with math. I feel that content teachers need to work with spanish teachers as the number of ELL students continue to increase.