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How to Teach Math to Struggling Students: Strategies for ESL Teachers

Updated: 4 days ago

Picture this: Maria, a young ESL student, sits at her desk with her laptop open. The math problem on the screen seems like an insurmountable mountain, and her frustration is growing by the minute. Across the globe, is an Online Math tutor, who is determined to help but faces the challenge of bridging both language and mathematical gaps. This scene is all too common in the world of online education.

As an ESL math teacher, you are uniquely positioned to transform these moments of frustration into breakthroughs of understanding. This guide is designed to provide you with practical, friendly, and motivational strategies to support your ESL students effectively. Dive in to discover how you can make the most of your digital classroom and help struggling math learners succeed.

Online ESL and Math: Understanding the twists

Teaching math to ESL students involves navigating language barriers, mathematical concepts and the fact that it is done online gives it a unique and challenging twist. By having a clear understanding of these factors, you can prepare and help support your students- here are some practical techniques and some pro moves you can do to prepare:

Math and Language Barriers

ESL students often find math particularly challenging due to the additional layer of language complexity.

  • Simplified Language: Use clear, simple language and avoid jargon. This helps students focus on understanding the math concepts without getting lost in complicated language.

  • Take regular checks: Frequently check in with students to ensure they understand.

  • Use visual cues:  Arrows and highlights help emphasize important parts of instructions. This helps students follow along more easily.

  • Visual Aids: Employ visual aids to support explanations and help students grasp complex terms. Visual aids can make abstract concepts more concrete and easier to understand.

Pro Tip: In a pinch, you can use bilingual glossaries and use translation apps to assist with difficult vocabulary. This can make a huge difference in comprehension, allowing students to bridge the gap between their native language and English.

Emotional and Cultural Factors

In addition to language barriers, ESL students may also face emotional stress and cultural adjustments. As an educator, it is your role to provide a supportive learning environment.

  • Emotional Support: Recognize and address the emotional stress your students might be facing. Acknowledge their efforts and create a safe space for them to express their struggles and achievements.

  • Cultural Sensitivity: Incorporate cultural references that students can relate to, making the learning process more familiar and less intimidating. This not only helps with understanding but also makes students feel more included and respected.

Pro Tip: Use audio and visual cues to help gauge your students distress. This might be in body language, or lack of attention, to simply not speaking at all. This would be your sign that your student needs extra understanding, or to gamify the lesson 

Digital Divide

While teaching math online has its technological perks, the virtual format also risks student disengagement from abstract concepts. Connecting math to real-world scenarios helps students see the relevance and practical use of math in their daily lives.

  • Relatable Examples: Use examples from everyday activities that are relevant to students' cultural backgrounds.

  • Practical Problems: Show how math is used in real-life scenarios like shopping or cooking to make learning more relatable and practical.

Pro Tip: Take advantage of the virtual format! Collaborative tools like shared documents allow peer-to-peer teaching by having students explain concepts. This reinforces math skills while building community.

How to Teach Math to Struggling Student through Online Tutoring

According to this study, learning math online has pitfalls- which you can do something about. Creating a supportive online environment and providing avenues for engagement are essential for helping ESL students feel comfortable and involved. Here are some strategies to foster a positive and interactive virtual classroom:

  • Positive Environment: Foster a welcoming and non-judgmental atmosphere. Ensure that students feel safe to express their ideas and ask questions without fear of ridicule or criticism. 

  • Encouragement: Celebrate all efforts and progress to build students' confidence. Recognize and praise even small achievements to boost morale. Positive reinforcement helps students feel valued and more willing to take on challenges.

  • Interactive Tools: Use chat functions, virtual hand-raising, and breakout rooms to promote participation. Chat functions allow for real-time questions and feedback, virtual hand-raising helps manage discussions, and breakout rooms facilitate small group work, making it easier for students to collaborate and communicate.

  • Small Groups or One-on-One Sessions: Smaller settings can reduce anxiety and provide a more personalized learning experience. In these sessions, teachers can give targeted support, address individual questions, and create a more intimate learning environment that encourages participation.

By implementing these strategies, you can ensure support and engagement despite barriers in online learning environment.

Tailored Assessment and Feedback Approaches for ESL Math Students

Online Math Teacher with a laptop doing a high-five to her student

Most students dread the feedback and assessment parts, specially when their self-confidence is low in a subject they are struggling with. Here’s some tips to take it easy on them and ease the pressure on struggling math learners:

Formative Assessments

  • Low-Stakes Quizzes: Regularly conduct quizzes and polls to gauge understanding without adding pressure.

  • Interactive Assessments: Use tools like Kahoot! and Quizizz for fun, interactive assessments.

Pro Tip: Provide immediate feedback during assessments to help students learn from mistakes. It’s an effective way to reinforce learning!

Constructive Feedback

  • Positive Reinforcement: Highlight what students did well before addressing areas for improvement.

  • Specific Guidance: Give clear, actionable advice on how to improve.

Pro Tip: Use digital badges and certificates to reward progress and motivate students. It’s a fun way to acknowledge their hard work.

Parental Involvement

  • Resource Sharing: Provide parents with resources and tips to support their children at home.

  • Regular Communication: If possible,find ways to keep parents informed about their child’s progress and challenges in your online classroom.

Metacognitive Skills through online Math tutoring

Developing metacognitive skills is a life-long tool for students to enhancing their ability to understand and manage their own learning processes. Here are some effective strategies that can help them develop a better perspective in their journey to embrace Math::

Reflective Practices

  • Self-Reflection: Encourage students to reflect on their learning processes and strategies.

  • Goal Setting: Help students set realistic goals and track their progress.

Pro Tip: Use digital journals or blogs for students to document their learning journey. This makes reflection more engaging.

Self-Monitoring Tools

  • Checklists and Journals: Introduce checklists or learning journals for self-assessment.

  • Progress Tracking: Use tools that allow students to monitor their own progress.

Be an Online Math Tutor geared for Success!

Teaching math to struggling ESL students online requires a thoughtful blend of language support and effective math instruction. By understanding the unique challenges these students face and implementing practical strategies, you can create a supportive and engaging learning environment.


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