There is a commonly held notion that mathematics has a universal quality that ensures learners have a relatively equal opportunity to succeed, whatever their background. But is this generally true when it comes to pupils learning English as an additional language (EAL), or does it require qualification and a much more nuanced analysis?
It can’t have escaped your attention, whether as an educator or parent, that there is some angst nationally over standards in mathematics compared with other nations. Whether this is a genuine problem and that the root causes can be easily explained is for another article. However, it is true that the UK differs from many other countries in the amount of language that is deliberately interwoven into the mathematics curriculum. This is important as the expression of mathematics through a linguistically rich curriculum may present barriers for learners who are not working at age-related expectations in English. This approach might also present cultural inhibitors, whether because children lack a degree of cultural capital as result of their upbringing or because they and/or their parents were educated abroad.
Pupils educated abroad
Pupils educated abroad, especially older EAL learners who have had an uninterrupted education, will have studied a lot of mathematics; finding out about their mathematical experience and ability can be problematic when they first arrive. However, it is true that mathematics is one subject in which newer to English learners have some chance to demonstrate their prior learning because it is less dependent on language than many other subjects. Testing and baseline assessment of mathematics can be helpful but the results need to be treated with caution. Whilst it is tempting to assume that mathematical approaches are similar across the world, the reality is very different. Numbers are not just numbers when a learner has routinely used different numerical symbols to the Hindu-Arabic numerals used in Western society. Not only this, but symbols, like an equal sign or a multiplication symbol, can be denoted differently. The fabric of the curriculum differs widely as well. We often find children are way ahead in certain disciplines such as algebra or calculus yet have limited knowledge of others like shape or perimeter. The mechanics of solving problems are such that a child may be secure in a method which is entirely different to those taught in UK Schools. Indeed, children abroad are not necessarily routinely taught several different methods and may find it hard to consider alternative ways of approaching a problem, particularly if they are already secure in one way.
The mathematical problem
As I am sure you are aware, our mathematical problems tend to be very wordy and the way that questions are expressed, particularly in exams, can be difficult for some EAL learners. The English is stylised, particular to mathematics and quite unlike the way that we talk or even write on a daily basis. I would also argue that most mathematical questions are culturally bound, making implicit assumptions about what experiences pupils will or will not have had, whether UK born or not.
To illustrate this quandary, consider the following problem:
At yesterday’s match 650 people watched Arsenal play on the big screen. Half of these fans bought a programme at £2.50 each.
- How many fans paid out?
- How much money was spent on programmes altogether?
Firstly, this question like many you will see in examination papers, lacks a comprehensively clear context. There are no visual clues and the setting, related to a football match, is implied but not explicitly referenced. If you don’t know about ‘Arsenal’ you are at an immediate disadvantage. The problem revolves around buying and selling ‘programmes’ which may be beyond many pupil’s experience if they have never attended a football game. The use of the word ‘programme’ is problematic as it can all too easily be linked with the phrase ‘watching on the big screen’ and interpreted as a TV programme. Like the word ‘programme’, there are other homographs as well, such as ‘match’ and ‘fan’ which may cause confusion. The relevant numerical operation is bound up in words like ‘each’ and ‘altogether’; words like this that imply a specific numerical operation, and there are many, need to be explicitly taught to EAL learners. The question also features the phrasal verb ‘paid out’; this type of language is extremely hard for English beginners.
The implications for EAL learners are far reaching. If you are working with children at an early stage of English acquisition you will need to consider both the linguistic and cultural demands of the mathematics curriculum. Making the mathematics more comprehensible will require thought and preparation - whether through the use of imagery, first language explanation, mathematical glossaries or other forms of personalisation.
written by Sarah Coles, Hampshire EMTAS Specialist Teacher Advisor
It is usually clear to staff in schools that there is a
support need they should address when a newly-arrived pupil from overseas
experiences a language barrier on joining their first UK school. This may be the child’s first experience of
being in an English-speaking environment, and there is much to learn in terms
of the new language. What are less
discernible – and perhaps less well-supported - are the other barriers such a
child may face – barriers that relate to differences in pedagogy, social and
cultural differences and of course the sense of dislocation and loss the
newly-arrived child may feel when they first start, having left behind all
their friends and possibly family members too.
Being placed in a situation far outside of their comfort zone, there is
a lot for a new arrival to manage in addition to the demands of having to cope
in a new language.
In the UK, pedagogical
approaches focus on children learning through experience, learning from each
other, learning through trial and error, learning through talk. From an early stage, our indigenous,
monolingual children learn how to learn in these ways and teachers, many
themselves a product of this same system, teach from an often deeply-rooted
belief that these ways are the best. We
are so immersed in the UK classroom culture that as practitioners we may forget
it’s not like this everywhere in the world.
In Poland, for example,
children do not come to sit on the carpet to learn as the carpet is perceived
to be a dirty surface that’s walked on by everyone, so a Polish child – and
possibly also their parents - may look askance when the class is directed to
come to sit there for story time.
In some countries,
children’s behaviour is managed for them,often with a stick should they step
out of line. This means they do not
learn to regulate their own behaviours right from the start of their
educational journeys as UK-born children do.
New arrivals coming from countries where corporal punishment is still
the norm may therefore struggle and fall foul of UK classroom behaviour
management approaches which they do not comprehend, getting themselves into
endless trouble as they struggle to acquire self-regulation skills with little
or no support. One teacher, dealing with
an incident involving a student from overseas who had hit another child, asked
the former “Would it be OK if I hit you?”
To her surprise, the reply came “Well yes, of course it would.” It was the matter-of-factness of the response
that caused her to realise this child really meant what he had said and that
this was not as straightforward an issue as she had at first assumed.
In other parts of the world,
pedagogical approaches may rest on the premise that children are empty buckets,
waiting to be filled with the knowledge possessed by their teachers. While the teacher teaches from the front, the
children sit at their desks in rows, their success measured by how much they
are able to repeat back in the end of year test. There is little scope for learning through
dialogue or for experimenting with ideas and hypotheses to see which ones hold
true under close examination and which do not.
A child coming from that sort of school experience may struggle to
comprehend what is going on in their lessons in their new, UK classroom. How should they engage with their education
when it looks like this? How should they
now behave and function as learners?
Parents may experience their
own difficulties as they grapple with the apparent vagaries of the UK education
system. They may have found applying
online for a school place challenging enough but that was just the start. If they were used to a system wherein their
child was taught from a textbook that came home every night so they could see
what had been covered during the day’s lesson, then how difficult must it be
for them to keep abreast of their child’s learning when there is no text book
to look at? How then should they recap at home the key points covered in class
each day? How might they help prepare their child for the school day
ahead? If they were familiar with
knowing where in the class ranking their child sat, what sense can they make of
our system where we don’t publish information about each child’s attainment in
comparison to their peers? And if in
their country of origin promotion to the next class depended on their child
passing the end-of-year tests, what must it mean to them in our system where
promotion from Year 4 to Year 5 is automatic, regardless of whether or not the
child has met the end-of-year expectations?
An awareness of the far-reaching impact of living in a new culture that goes beyond a nod and accepts that mere survival isn’t really good enough will help practitioners reflect on how they currently support their international new arrivals and what they might be able to put in place to improve current practice. It is of course still good practice to support children to access the curriculum in English through the planned, purposeful use of first language but if we are to look at the bigger picture, then there is more that can be done to help a newly-arrived child to integrate into their new UK school – not least giving thought to what might be the barriers their parents are facing, and what they can do to reduce or remove them.
Consultant (EAL) at Hampshire EMTAS
First published on the ATL blog, July 2017
Further reading and resources
http://www3.hants.gov.uk/education/emtas/culturalguidance.htm EMTAS cultural guidance sheets
behaviour management guides for parents