“Is math a universal language or a foreign language for ELLs?” asks Holly Hansen-Thomas in this article by the same title.
On the one hand, numbers are numbers in any language, and math is “objective,” and logical, right? But on the other, numbers are couched in language, and some language speakers—Chinese, for instance—have a distinct mathematical advantage over speakers of other languages, even by age four. (Thank you, Malcolm Gladwell, for laying it out.) Perhaps most importantly, mathematical jargon is specialized and often decontextualized, making equations and word problems alike a challenge for English learners.
Think of all those strange words, or strange new meanings of familiar words, that ELs are exposed to in math class and nowhere else: integer, function, factorial, equation, angle, hypotenuse, plane, table, axis, equation, probability… It’s almost enough to make you want to abandon culturally-bound, messy things like word problems, and stick to “straight numbers.”
But according to this study, that’s precisely what you shouldn’t do.
EdWeek lays it out for us: Middle school through college students like narrative word problems best, when given the choice over equations and non-narrative word problems (like, take the sum of numbers 3 and x and multiply by 4 to get 24 minus 4. What is x?). Students were not only more likely to attempt narrative word problems, but also more likely to get the right answer, especially since they felt free to solve it “their way.”
My hunch is that relevance to real life, and context, context, context, are the keys to word problem success. Granted, the language load is increased for ELs when it comes to word problems, but by teaching explicit language frames, like the ones we use in our curriculum, students can internalize tricky math terms and turn their attention to the actual math concepts.
Do you give word problems a fair shake in your classroom? How do you scaffold ELs when it comes to word problems and the language of math?