User blog: Chris Pim
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 Chris Pim, Hampshire
EMTAS Specialist Teacher Advisor
How to use computer games to enrich the curriculum and raise standards in reading and writing for all pupils, including more advanced learners of English as an additional language (EAL)
Most pupils have direct experience of playing computer games, whatever their linguistic or cultural heritage. Minecraft, you may be aware, is one of the most successful games of all time. So how could you capitalise on the interest in digital gaming to engage your learners and develop approaches that can raise standards across the curriculum?
Using computer games for language learning across the curriculum – some considerations
Not all computer games are created equal – to coin a phrase. Games that are specifically designed for education, such as English language learning games, may not be that successful because pupils realise that they are no more than thinly disguised tests and don’t respond positively to them.
In an educational context the best games are immersive; the player inhabits a realistically rendered 3D world influencing a narrative- rich storyline through the actions of their character/avatar. From a learning perspective, especially for EAL pupils, professionally produced computer games contain clear graphics, authentic storylines, audio narration/music and rich texts that provide a clear context and make meaning explicit. Some also provide obvious links to the curriculum such as through historical, geographical and scientific settings and scenarios.
You also need to be aware that all marketed computer games are subject to an age rating to determine their appropriateness for children and young people (Pegi). This is an important factor in determining the type of computer game that you might choose to use with your pupils.
As you read this article you may already have ideas for suitable computer games. However you might like to consider any of the following: The Myst series, Minecraft Storymode, Syberia, The Longest Journey, Tintin - Search for the Unicorn, The Room series and Amerzone.
There are numerous opportunities for developing thinking, talking and writing around computer games. For example, there is obviously merit in allowing pupils to play the game in pairs/groups as the quality of discussion will benefit EAL learners as they work alongside supportive peers. There is also tremendous potential in playing parts of the game as a whole class, projecting game play onto a large digital display. One pupil plays the game and peers suggest where to look, which objects to interact with and generally help to decide on particular courses of action at major decision points. Pupils can also debate particular courses of action. This all helps to develop more academic types of language that will improve written outcomes.
Playing a computer game from start to finish won’t be possible. But the game can be moved on by playing video game walk-throughs sourced from the internet. Featured texts within the game can be used as the basis for EAL-friendly activities; vocabulary-building games, Directed Activities Related to Texts (DARTs) and collaborative writing tasks like Dictogloss.
When playing computer games it is immediately apparent how fruitful the medium is for developing writing within different text types - for example, encouraging descriptive writing around realistic settings and well-defined characters. The format also encourages learners to produce recounts of game play sessions. Finding solutions to puzzles and making progress through the game provides opportunities for instructional and explanation-based texts. Students can discuss/argue the relative strengths and weaknesses of any particular game or perhaps the appropriateness of its age-rating from the perspective of a player or parent. Pupils could also write computer game reviews.
Why not also challenge your pupils to create persuasive videos to advertise a chosen computer game? Using professionally produced video game adverts sourced from the internet you can demonstrate persuasive techniques, such as rhetorical questions, repetition, lists of three, hyperbole etc. Next, using images and video captured from their chosen game, encourage pupils to collaborate on the production of a promotional video using iMovie’s Trailer feature. You will find this activity is especially beneficial for more advanced EAL learners as it acts as an intermediate scaffold for writing persuasively.
As you can see there are many ideas for integrating computer games into the classroom to improve the reading and writing skills of your more advanced EAL learners alongside their peers. So, what’s stopping you? You won’t be disappointed with the outcomes!
To read a research case study focussed on using immersive games to improve the writing of more advanced EAL learners visit: https://eal.britishcouncil.org/eal-sector/eal-and-immersive-games