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Math Word Problems in an ESL Classroom
As a math teacher in Asia, I face the same problem day after day. My students can’t solve 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 at the heart of my subject; they give meaning to numbers and relate to our daily life practices. 2 times 2 doesn’t mean anything, but 2 apples of 2 dollars each do! Mathematics and conceptualization go hand in hand.
Most of the teachers at my school seem to be jealous of me because teaching math is supposed to be so easy to teach in our ESL context. Math is easy because it’s all about numbers, and numbers are universal. True, but this answer neglects 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, the importance of English as a global language is recognized. EP schools, or English programs, are springing up like mushrooms 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 big picture thinking, but comes with risks.
Thai students are not fluent in English. In fact, they have poor English skills. International assessment studies show poor English skills, which is not really a surprise. The Thai language bears no resemblance to English and outside of school, and at home, only Thai is spoken.
So how can Thai students learn school subjects such as social studies, science and math in English without missing out on the essentials? That’s the million dollar question. How can teachers, school administrators, and parents expect these children to learn concepts when the transmission of information is not understood?
Word problems are perceived as difficult by students. It requires students to read and analyze problems in order to find the necessary methodology. A fantastic example of such a problem is a question from my fourth grade math book:
“Admission to a trade show is $12.40. On Monday, 250 people visited the exhibition and on Tuesday 200 more people than Monday visited the trade exhibition. How much money was collected in entrance fees on both days?
As can be understood, the majority of students will struggle with this problem. Mathematically, 3 steps are involved: addition, again addition and multiplication. Not easy for a fourth grader, but the biggest challenge isn’t the mathematical operations, it’s the language used. How can a young learner relate to trade shows? And how many English-speaking students can correctly spell the word exhibition? Now imagine Thai students and the difficulty for teachers to explain this problem. So much time will be wasted explaining words like trade, exposure and visitors.
So how can we teach these issues to ESL students in Thailand, or anywhere for that matter? First, throw away your book! Any book with problems like the one above is not suitable for young learners and not at all for ESL students. Second: rewrite your material. Use easier language, talk to English teachers and use the vocabulary taught in their lessons.
The same problem as above can be rewritten as follows:
“The price of an 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 problem has become a math problem again and most students will understand the meaning. Whether they can solve it or not, it now becomes a math problem and not a matter of (non-existent) academic reading skills.
Teaching word problems to non-native English students is challenging, but not impossible. There are many websites with excellent sources. Don’t abandon your students. When math is all about numbers, it will never make sense!
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