Sunday, December 9, 2007

Language acquisition and learning math

Just finished a class necessary toward clearing the credential, and in that context I've finally read through an actual textbook on teaching English learners, which was good. Thinking about strategies for teaching vocabulary, though, I think it would be helpful to distinguish between the kinds of words that can be taught by pointing to whatever the word refers to on the one hand, and the kinds of words where the referent of the word needs to be constructed from scratch. Learning math involves more of the latter kind, and the strategies involved for internalizing such words are so different from those required for the former kind that it seems misleading to even subsume the two under the same header of "vocabulary acquisition."

One lesson that I have not been very successful at teaching involves a lot of vocabulary of both kinds, so for one assignment I focused on this lesson on classifying numbers. I've been puzzled at how poorly my classes have done on this topic. Some of the problems, such as the inability to remember what "integer" means, would be addressed with the usual bag of vocab learning tricks of flash cards, personal dictionaries, repetition, and repetition - this would be a word of the first kind, where the learning task is simply to memorize a letter combination and to link the word to its referent. However, words such as "equivalence," "inclusion," and even "all," "some" and "none" are also necessary, and maybe such content area concepts are all so unique that no list of teaching approaches can be made - on the other hand, I'd be surprised if the field of linguistics does not provide some broad, general insights on acquiring such words. However, whatever these insights might be, they have not trickled down to the teacher ed classes I've taken, at least not while I've been paying attention.

All Algebra I and Algebra II textbooks I've seen introduce the topic of classifying numbers by presenting a Venn Diagram of the usual sets, and provide no further clarification about how Venn Diagrams work, assuming, it would seem, that this visual is self-explanatory and can replace a verbal discussion of basic ideas of sets. However, students do not generally know how Venn Diagrams work. In trying to clarify the idea I have asked multiple Algebra I and Algebra II classes to draw Venn Diagrams of statements such as
  1. All high school students study math.
  2. Some high school students study music.
  3. No high school students are senior citizens.
Generally, students can deal with statement 2, but when presented with diagrams for statements 1 and 3 they are not only initially confused - they also frequently express disagreement, claiming that they have learned differently in English class. Basically, the only type of Venn Diagrams they are comfortable with are those for intersecting sets. So much for leaving interpretation of these diagrams to the learners.

After class discussions and multiple examples of Venn Diagrams for situations where one set is included in the other or where the sets are disjunct, a majority of students will get the point and draw accurate diagrams for natural language statements. However, many students do not get to this point, at least not in Algebra I, and will continue to diagram "All x is y" by drawing the circle for y inside the the circle for x, and I am wondering why. I have not yet tried to find out whether it is mainly a matter of not matching the appropriate visual representations with the words "all," "some" or "none," and whether they would be able to correctly answer questions about sets of numbers based on sentences alone. I have basically emphasized translation between Venn Diagrams and statements. Whatever the problem might be, I have a greater appreciation for how hard it must be to learn high school math without a pretty strong grasp of pretty abstract words for referents that can not simply be pointed to.


Anonymous said...

I think Euler Diagrams are the more general ones you are drawing.


Sarah Cannon said...

I hadn't realized how much vocabulary there is in math until I started teaching it! My students learn the ideas decently, but don't study enough to retain them.

In the discussion of Venn Diagrams, have you looked at Indexed, I used some ideas from here when introducing linear relationships and it seemed to help.

H. said...

Jonathan - the textbook calls its nested rectangles thing for classifying numbers a Venn Diagram.

Sarah - thanks for the link! Was looking for that site a few weeks ago, but couldn't remember enough specifics to find it.

JeffreygeneHK said...

H, I was going to also suggest going through indexed for good examples to teach some of those words. Sarah beat me to it.

Also thought I'd share a bit of what I know about teaching vocabulary. (My advice comes with a grain of salt, and four years of English teaching experience.)

Two simple strategies work well for my students - visual representations and a kinetic activity or something that involves a manipulative. For the latter, you could hand out flashcards and definitions and give the class one minute to find their partner. Or for the former, ask the students to put in their personal dictionary not a definition (since dictionary definitions usually contain words that the students don't know, kind of defeating the purpose of the exercise), but some kind of visual representation of the meaning of the word. Probably a student can figure a way to draw a stick figure image that shows the word "inclusion".

The theory behind the different strategies I use is to offer an alternative to the visual learning style of memorizing a word and a definition...

Hope this helps a tad!


Anonymous said...

I'm looking at your post again. What if you used two overlapping circles, A, and B, and asked the kids to call out numbers. Let the circles be multiples of 3 and 5 respectively, place each number in the appropriate circle (or overlap) and let the kids "Find the rule" for each circle. (if a number is a multiple of neither, write it outside)

I think it's possible to move from there to multiples of 2 and multiples of 6, and there's the beginning of your nest.

Notice that you are placing numbers, not groups of numbers, one at a time, which may make it more accessible.

Of course, this is weeks later, and you probably have left this topic behind already.