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New Teachers Online: How-To Articles:
Adjust Your Teaching Styles for English Language Learners (ELL) in ESL/Bilingual Classrooms

Helping ELL/ESL Students Connect Math to Real Life Experiences
Tobey Bassoff

Unifying theme: Connections

NCTM standard: Recognize and apply mathematics in contexts outside of mathematics.

Teaching Model: Reflective Thinking

In this lesson students will identify ways in which their away from school experiences connect to mathematics.

Prerequisite knowledge: Students should already be familiar with the structure of word problems. They should also know strategies for solving word problems and know how to create word problems of their own. One website that I use with my students is:


ESL students are highly successful when they can link visual representations to a concept. The Read It! Draw It! Solve It! Problem Solving for the Primary Grades series by Elizabeth D. Miller (Pearson Learning Group) is an excellent source for this kind of practice.

Introduction activity:

The Lesson:

Preparation: On a white sheet of 11” x 18” paper create an illustration of something that you do when you are away from school. Tape the top part of a 5.5” x 9” sheet of lined paper to the bottom part of your drawing. Create a math word problem inspired by your experience and illustration. I typically select a concept that we were working on prior to break. This serves a dual purpose: it refreshes the students memory and it makes them practice something that they already know. Solve the word problem underneath the lined paper, so that when the students lift the lined paper they can see how it was solved. Also have enough supplies (cut paper, tape, markers, pencils, etc) on hand for the creation of the story problems.

Format: Meet with students in small groups of five.

Plan: Have students share some of their experiences after a break (weekend, evening, winter, spring, summer, etc). Then introduce students to the standard of connecting math to their real life experiences. Next, have students reflect on how one of their experiences could be connected to the math concept you were studying before break began.


My third graders were introduced to the concept of multiplication before winter break. When Rosa returned from break, she designed this problem:

My mom, my sister, and I wanted to bake 7 cakes for my relatives who were visiting from Mexico. Each cake needed 2 cups of sugar. How many cups of sugar did we need to bake 7 cakes?

Once the students complete their illustrations I grade them, laminate them, and save them to create an interactive bulletin board called "Math Question of the Week." Students read problems and enter their answers into a drawing each week. The students who author the problem can also enter. Students feel special when they see their problems featured, and classmates love reading the work of other students. The lesson also gives ESL students a chance to practice reading, writing, and math in English.

Give the lesson a try and let me know how it goes.



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