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Because mathematics uses a lot of symbols to convey information (+, -, x, =), it is easy to assume all students can understand what is being taught because math is a “universal language.” However, the symbols represent specific language (add, subtract, multiply, equals) that is used by mathematicians. The belief of this universal language assumes that students, therefore, do not need language support. This belief will lead educators astray. Many math teachers feel it is their job to teach their students how to do math. We contend that it is also the teacher’s job to teach students how speak like a mathematician.
The Role of Language in Mathematics
Contrary to popular assumption, language plays a critical role not just in reading and writing, but in learning mathematics as well. Kristina Robertson suggests that we tend to think of math as not requiring a strong command of language when, in fact, “mathematical reasoning and problem solving are closely linked to language and rely upon a firm understanding of basic math vocabulary.” Therefore, as a teacher, you’re challenged with making math lessons comprehensible and with ensuring that students have the language to understand instruction and express their grasp of math concepts orally and in writing.
The Role of the Student
The student’s role is to speak like a mathematician. They are expected to use specialized vocabulary in mathematics when understanding problems, when solving problems, and when they share their thinking process. This math talk also helps teachers and students recognize what students understand and when and where they are struggling. Discussing how they are thinking about math is also a way of redirecting the lesson from teacher-to-student to student-to-student.
The Role of the Teacher
The teacher’s role is to show students how to speak like a mathematician. They need to model how to articulate thinking using specialized vocabulary in mathematics. Denise Jarrett points out while most students “can be relatively proficient in social language, they must be explicitly taught to use academic language.” In addition to being challenged with needing to learn academic language and math content, English language learners (ELLs) are challenged with learning a second language.
Most students need a great deal of explicit instruction, modeling, and coaching before they develop the kind of speaking skills that allow them to take ownership of their learning. This makes the role of the teacher a crucial one in helping all students develop the use of academic and content language in mathematics.
Two of the most effective methods to develop the use of articulate mathematical language is to:
- Strategically teach the appropriate use of academic and content language.
- Ask specific questions and offer sentence frames that push students’ speaking skills so that they can articulate precise thinking and processing.
Focus on Academic Language
Many students struggle with academic language because their exposure to it outside of the school environment does not include advanced words and phrases. Even more absent is the opportunity to manipulate and use specific content language needed to precisely communicate mathematical thinking.
In mathematics, students make sense of problems by seeing structure and repeated reasoning and then making connections. While the use of standard English is acceptable in the social context, it is crucial that students learn the more precise language of mathematics when discussing math.
Whenever possible, model the academic language of mathematics. If students use the more common terms, restate their words as a mathematician.
Focus on Sentence Frames
Sentence frames provide students with parameters for their speaking and thinking. They also facilitate student discussion and empower learners who may need additional support by providing an opening into the conversation with the appropriate language structure for responding to questions. Sentence frames provide for open-ended responses that allow students to expand on their mathematical thinking and develop their reasoning ability.
Whenever possible, use these questions and frames to support students’ academic language development in both listening and speaking.
Remember, it’s the teacher’s role is to show students how to speak like a mathematician. In other words, it is important to recognize the need for a teacher to teach and model how to use academic and content language in the mathematics. Ultimately, when students begin using the vocabulary of mathematics and speaking like a mathematician, they will own their learning.
The Learning Brief
In this article you learned…
- Language plays a critical role in learning mathematics.
- Students are expected to use specialized vocabulary in mathematics.
- The teacher’s role is to show students how to articulate their thinking using specialized vocabulary in mathematics.
- Direct teaching of this specialized vocabulary and the use of sentence frames facilitate this process.
Can you imagine building an environment full of motivated, engaged, and eager students who own their learning?