Mathematics language in our problem-solving.
The language of mathematics must run through every area of our mathematics instruction. For years I have worked with schools, many of which had high populations of English learning students and many without, and again and again, with both types of student populations the language of mathematics stood in the way of success for many students.
For many students, it was not until they took the state assessment that they had to solve problems with the words one-tenth or one-hundredth. In class, many, many students had only heard and been expected to use the words (zero- point -one to describe situations involving one-tenth or zero- point- zero-zero one to describe one-hundredth, you can see how this wording can make decimals slightly more confusing).
Students are also often taught to say add a zero to a number to go from 42 to 420 when in actuality they are multiplying by ten and would benefit from repeating the phrase ” ___ is ten times as much as ___” over and over again. Students who have had limited exposure to the language of mathematics are in for quite a rude awakening when they sit down to take state tests.
Word problems often present a challenge to both students and teachers not solely because of the mathematics involved, but the language used within the word problems. For example, compare problem types such as
“Mary has 15 balloons. That is 7 more than Michael. How many balloons does Mary have?
Many students cherry-pick the word “more” from the problem and automatically add the two values (15, 7) together. When solving word problems reading comprehension must play an equal role in instruction in order for students to build true meaning and have success.
Additionally, a reoccurring part of the state SBAC or CAASP test (depending on where you live) is matching an equation to the correct word problem. I have included an example from the state practice test below to give you an idea of the stamina, reading comprehension, and model making students will face.
CAASP, 5th Grade Sample Problem, 2019 Practice Test
Understanding how mathematics connects to language must play a consistent role in the mathematics classroom for all students, but especially for students who are just learning the English language. The everyday use of mathematics vocabulary in the classroom accomplishes 3 major goals of the California English language Development standards: 1) it’s collaborative, students can exchange ideas with one another, 2) it’s interpretive, students can read and listen in for key ideas, analyze and learn from the work of others, and 3) it’s productive, students can express their ideas while advocating for their own strategies and strategies of others.