Follow up: Language Collaboration and Mathematics

As I have implemented a student centered inquiry approach into mathematics this academic year, I have been thinking about how to also better address mother tongue integration. English and Mongolian are the only languages in official use in the primary school for the time being. After discussing my students’ thoughts on this topic, we began to reflect at a deeper level about how this may affect those who return to home countries.

As all students at ISU have daily Mongolian classes, it is the second common language in the school. After reading Emily Vand’s post about experimenting with using languages other than English to discuss books, I decided to try this with mathematics.

During a recent unit about space and shape, students were wondering if a couch would fit in the classroom, for next year. Applying their understanding of measurement and principles of perimeter and area, students used Bee-Bots to justify their predictions and floor plans.

As they experimented with the coding necessary to prove their calculations, a student who is German volunteered to direct a classmate,  a native Mongolian speaker, speaking only in German, how to program the Bee-Bot. Upon reflecting afterward, here were some comments:

-“There are some words in German that sound like English.”

– “Hand gestures would help since we didn’t know any German.”

-“It’s helpful to discuss in our native language what we thought he meant as he told us in German what to do with the Bee-Bot.”

-“Like in Mongolian and English, there are multiple words in German that mean one thing, or a similar thing.”

I would like to encourage my students to continue this language exploration, not only in mathematics investigations, but with book clubs and units of inquiry. As Dr. Jim Cummins states, use of one’s language affirms one’s identity. My German student was enjoying using math talk in his self-proclaimed least favorite subject. The hope is that this type of language collaboration can help students build an appreciation for languages other than English and Mongolian, as well as extend their own inquiries by also using their home languages.


Language and Mathematics

Since joining SPELTAC, I have been reflecting upon my practices as a teacher of language across the curriculum, as well as the language policy of my current school. Are we doing what is best for students’ English, Mongolian, and home language development? What are we currently doing that helps students reach their fullest potentials? How aware are we of the words we use with students–do our choices encourage students to engage more confidently and authentically with language?

To this end, as I read Emily Vand’s posts from earlier this academic year, I thought what an interesting idea to invite students to discuss literature in languages other than English. As we have been implementing a full on inquiry approach into mathematics this year, I decided to ask my students their thoughts on this (and then try it!), to enhance their understanding of cognitive academic language (Jim Cummins) in the mother tongues within our class-Mongolian, English, German, Japanese, Afrikaans, Korean, Russian, and French.

Our grade 5 class is currently inquiring into circles’ measurements and other attributes, including proving Pi. More to follow on how these explanations go in languages apart from our common language of instruction, English.

Using the deBono Thinking Hats as a thinking strategy, students commented on the positives and possible downsides of conducting mathematics instruction in languages other than English.

Anu suggested, with several classmates agreeing, that the specific vocabulary would be “easier” when the student’s native language is used in instruction.

Similarly, Laurenz implied that it is just easier with a common language most people understand.

Tushig stated that “it would be hard for teachers because they do not know ‘all those languages’ listed”. Another peer was in agreement.

Anu also offered the idea that many countries have different strategies and systems for teaching mathematics–different from a PYP international school model. This would thereby make it hard for students to manage learning mathematically specific terminology  in a language other than their native tongue. She was hinting at the idea that cultural practices and language are connected to one another.

After trying this approach in class with volunteers using their home languages, we will re-visit their initial feelings and discuss how their thoughts either stayed the same or changed.

Possible questions could be:

How did knowing the terminology about circles in English help you when ___ was teaching us, speaking _____?

How did visuals and body language assist your understanding?

How did you feel as you were listening to  _____ speaking______?

How does knowing this in English, in _______, and _______ (and _____) help you have a deeper understanding of circles and their characteristics?

Excited to do this!