Math is a Language

I was encouraged to watch this TEDx presentation Math isn’t hard, it’s a language by teacher and Synergy Academies Founder Dr. Randy Palisoc . An intriguing and confusing title! With our SPELTAC inquiry group goals in mind, the idea of my subject being  a language captivated me.

This inspiring and informative presentation highlighted the dismal state of affairs in US math education. Although we do not experience this at our school, our students still face many issues in math and since language acquisition is central to learning, I was encouraged by this presentation to try Palisoc’s approach. He basically “put words back into math lessons enabling  even the youngest school-age minds to grasp complex concepts.”  Math is one school subject, that seems to have traditionally been thought of as abstract and difficult to understand. But Palisoc allows language – from everyday speech (like BICS), all the way to academic language (CALPs) – infuse his lessons in order to help students grasp concepts.

So how do we make it simple for students, you might ask?  Can we simply just remember that math is a language and use that to our advantage? The idea is to take  a language approach and this the math becomes intuitive.

One example, is considering the problem of adding the fractions ⅓ + ⅓ . By allowing students to speak the words “one third” the problem  becomes  “one third plus one third”, which equals “two thirds.”  His students were all able to do this before he even showed them the math process.  For my students, I thought of the very difficult algebra concept of “like terms”. For example, what is  2×2  + 3×2?  Many students confuse the rules of algebraic multiplication with this and thus arrive at 6×4.  In fact, the abstract nature of this topic is what causes this. That, and also a lack of proper explanation and use of language. Now, testing  out Palisoc’s idea on my students, I say out loud:

“How many x2 do I have if I add two x2  and three x2?”  Their response should not surprise you: ”Five x2” . Which is correct.

Another example: If I write “6x” on the board  and ask “how many x’s do you see?” my students  (properly) respond by saying “six.”  If this confuses you, consider what it means – six times  x.

Palisoc’s point is that we often teach math  as a “dehumanized subject”. Furthermore, we have  taken this language (which describes the world around us) and have abstracted it beyond recognition. He maintains that math is a HUMAN  language like any other language. And  whoever says we are “hardwired” for math (or not), they are mistaken – we all have the ability to understand it.

1 thought on “Math is a Language”

  1. I like how you have tested out Palisoc’s idea in your classroom. It’s such a clear example of how language and learning are linked. I like the phrase ‘abstracted it beyond recognition’ , as I think this might be what happens in many subjects and we need to constantly ask ourselves how accessible the language we use is for students. Thanks for sharing!

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