Students faced with any word problem in Mathematics quite often have difficulties when attempting to comprehend the context of a Math problem for example, being able to recognize the question in the format that it is being asked and lastly, being able to create and solve the numerical equation.

This issue almost certainly arises for those students learning English as a Second Language (ELLs) and who might not yet have learnt the keyword terminology needed to solve such equations as they find themselves confronted with.

“ELLs who have had formal education in their home countries generally do not have mathematical difficulties; hence, their struggles begin when they encounter a word problem in a second language that they have not yet mastered” (Bernardo, 2005).

Because of this it is recommended that students learn essential Math terminology before trying to address algebraic word problems.

Once a student knows the key terminology used in an algebraic word problem, it will be less complicated and easier for them to know and understand the best ways to compose numerical equations. What is absolutely essential for teachers to provide ELLs with, are ample opportunities to learn and practice the use of key vocabulary words.

While essential words are critical, they are just one component in the learning process.

Recognizing the key words in a word problem is vital for all students with each of them needing to know the actual definition of the words however, because words are frequently used differently and problems are constructed in different ways, there are some cautionary messages to be aware of.

Below is an instance of a problem that uses “fewer than” to set up a subtraction equation.

Chantelle has 24 marbles which is 8 “fewer than” Stephen has. How many marbles does Stephen have?

If we were to only concentrate on using key words, “fewer than” is a signal to pick out the numbers and subtract. Thus, the student might immediately come to the conclusion that the correct answer is 16 however, that is not what the word problem was asking. The problem was asking:

How many marbles does Stephen have?

Then correct answer is actually 32.

What studies has discovered is that if we ask students to count only on knowing that certain key words indicate specific operations, we tend to actually lead them away from correctly identifying and understanding what the word problem is asking.

Hence ELL students can often develop a habit of looking only for those words and those numbers that are in the word problem, even if they are not relevant to the answer.

The important issue here is that despite a student’s level of proficiency with the English language, such habits will not help them in their aspirations of becoming highly proficient in the area of Mathematics.

However, if teachers follow use the method of reading over a problem several times with both lower grades as well as higher grades and actually discuss what it means, then ELLs will understand. Drawing is another successful way of getting the meaning of a word problem across for example, if you were to drawer 24 marbles up on the board and say:

“Here’s Stephen’s marbles, he has more because Chantelle has fewer than he does”

Draw 24 marbles for Chantelle which is 8 “fewer than” Stephen’s.

Add 8 marbles to Stephen’s marbles. So what is Stephen’s total?

The difference is between knowing the meaning of the words “fewer than” and using “fewer than” as a key to an operation hence the real task lies in:

Getting students to know not just the meaning of the key word but to also be able to see the keyword in the context of the whole word problem.