Classroom Perspectives, ESL and ELL, Math

PBS Math Club Builds Confidence for ESL Students

PBS Math Club Builds Confidence for ESL Students

Originally published December 2015

By Vanessa Pinto

When tutoring non-native English speakers, instructors are not only faced with the challenge of differentiating instruction for multiple subjects and learning levels, but also with integrating social and cultural dynamics into our lessons.

I am an ESL instructor to elementary and middle school students in Springs (East Hampton), NY, and after school I lead a tutoring program through the non-profit organization Project Most. The organization strives to “build on the strengths of our children by providing a range of academic support, enrichment activities, and a positive social environment everyday, after school.”

The students in my tutoring program range from grades one through seven and classes are divided into two 90-minute sessions. My middle school group, in particular, has a ratio of 6:1 in favour of females, mostly comprising students whose native languages are Spanish, Swedish, Chinese, or Vietnamese. Many of my students are English Language Learners (ELL) and have not had the same exposure to academic subjects as native English speakers. As a result, I spend much of the time working with them on their homework for core courses. Overall, math and English/language arts have been their most challenging subjects.

Instead of being “lectured to” in an after-school program, my students prefer learning in a laid-back environment, at their own pace, and through their peers. That’s why I have always strongly encouraged the idea of grouping students together for mentoring purposes, with one “expert” group leader and the remaining three to four students as learners. I have also noticed there is a tendency for my students to leap towards the computer for homework assistance, no matter their native language.

With these two key learning preferences in mind, a student and I were browsing YouTube for simplified math tutorials one afternoon when we stumbled upon the PBS Kids Math Club—math tutorial videos geared toward teens. I knew they would be perfect for my students. The videos can be viewed for free on the Math Club’s YouTube channel and feature several teens in a study group who hang out after school to learn and also do “teen” things.

They talk about pop culture topics to teach viewers Pre-Algebra. One video, for example, parodies the teen film Mean Girls, where the rules of adding negative integers are explained like the “rules” of joining a high school clique. Another video demonstrates how to add and subtract big stacks of positive and negative numbers through a rap song. The pop culture references also allow my ELL students to learn about TV shows and characters to help them accustom to their new country.


The Math Club videos include a quiz that allows viewers to practice what they’ve learned in each episode. A correct answer results in a link to one YouTube video and an incorrect answer leads to another video that will help students better understand the correct formula. The goal is to eventually answer all the problems correctly, while encouraging students through new and fun ways of learning.

The free program from PBS was designed from the ground up for blended learning, using Common Core Standards, and focuses on the struggles that teens often experience with math. Since the videos are on YouTube, they are always an available resource. Students can bookmark, share, like, and comment on them, as on any social media platform.

Instead of having that feeling of being lectured to, students are introduced to new math concepts through common teen interests. The videos are reminiscent of “vlogs,” or video blogs that are popular amongst many teens where the actors speak directly to the audience.

To create a balance between the video tutorials and person-to-person interaction, I initially encouraged my ELL students to create live versions of the videos. These students were ones who had already mastered the concepts or displayed proficiency in math. They used their favourite book or television characters as the central focus of their math problem story, modelling the PBS tutorials. They each shared their “real world” math problems with one another, and allowed themselves to hone in on their math skills, while practicing their speaking, presentation, and listening skills as well.

For my students, not only are they faced with the challenge of mastering the English language, but also math—an abstract and tricky language. The PBS MathClub YouTube series is a brilliant way for students to use a universal, 21st-century tool to learn a complex and intimidating subject. These videos also allow the students to learn at their own pace.

This method of learning reminds us as instructors that taking a stress-free and enjoyable approach to learning is what garners full participation and appeal from our students of all levels and learning backgrounds.

Vanessa Pinto is New York State certified ESL teacher and tutor.

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