Just a few weeks back, I was working in a second grade classroom, and a student “Marco” was really struggling with a grouping or repeated addition type problem.  “ The teacher is constructing a building. He will use 4 blocks. Each block cost 29 cents. How much money did the teacher spend?”

After rereading the problem multiple times, discussing it with a partner, and working with a small group, he still could not act out the problem accurately. The week before, a group of kids in a different classroom had the same problem.

This is not a difficult problem for most, if a student listens carefully, they can direct model it (act it out), but if you’re an English learner and struggle with the idiosyncrasies of the English language, it is challenging. After working with “Marco” one on one, his teacher and I realized he did not know the meaning of the word each.

If you think about it, how often do we use the word each in our classrooms, outside of math word problems? We might say, “ I want everybody to get started right away. Make sure everyone has a piece of paper. or Do all of you have a pencil?”  What if we substituted everybody, everyone, and all of you with each? “I want each of you to get started right away. Make sure each person has a piece of paper. I want you to come to school each day this week. It’s not hard and it requires only that we are conscious and conscientious about the language we use.

Consider the phrase, how many more. If you have spent any amount of time posing word problems to students, you know what they tend to say and do when they hear how many more. They point to or identify the item that has more. Rarely do they compare the two values. After sitting beside teachers and students for years, students don’t compare because there is nothing in the language that implies they should. We have to embed the meaning. We can use the exact phrasing, “ The Lakers have 39 points. The Warriors have 53 points. How many more points do the Lakers need to tie the game?  This basketball game context is a real world situation that many students care about and can relate to. When students understand the context and purpose for a problem, they are far more willing to engage with and make sense of it.

You can also begin by using students’ natural language and linking it to academic language. There are 6 mama fish and 9 baby fish. How many of the baby fish need a mama? How many more mama fish do they need? The purpose and context are clear and relatable. Students can begin to engage with the language and build meaning.

How often do you use the words: factor, product, sum, etc. outside of math? How often do you use it when referring to equations? When I am working with students, I use these words and I encourage students to use it also whenever they are explaining their work. “Oh, so you got a product of 12.” What product did you get for the next problem?” The language becomes a natural way of communicating.


English learners learn words like: ball, teacher, bathroom, book very early and with ease because they use those words all day, each day. When and how will you use academic language all day, each day, today?

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