Mathematics and Bilingualism

Mathematics is considered as one of the most difficult subjects to understand. Students have difficulty applying the basic computational skills to a more complex mathematics or science (Seceda & dela Cruz, n. d. ). Researchers argue that this difficulty in understanding the concepts of mathematics is due to most educators’ strict observation to procedure (Schoenfeld, 1988).

Although there is a steady rise in students’ achievement scores in mathematics since the early 1980’s (Seceda, 1992) showing that educators are successful in teaching basic computational skills to students, they have been less successful in teaching the students when to apply the skills they have taught (Dossey, Mullis, & Jones, 1993; Dossey, Mullis, Lindquist, & Chambers, 1988; Mullis, Dossey, Foertsch, Jones, & Gentile, 1991; Mullis, Dossey, Owen, & Phillips, 1993; Seceda & dela Cruz, n. d. ).

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Thus, it is important that educators should focus in teaching mathematics for understanding to students rather than in observing strict procedures. However, one must note the fact that teaching for understanding does not just concern the mainstream or majority students. As Seceda and Cruz emphasize that “teaching for understanding concerns more generally all students including those with diverse social backgrounds. It is believed that mathematics involves considerable use of English, especially word problems” (Seceda & dela Cruz, n. d. ).

Due to this belief, it only follows that children who are studying English as a second-language (or second language learners) have difficulty in studying mathematics. Most schools in the United States teach mathematics in a “procedural” manner.

That is, when students solved a particular mathematical problem in an unconventional way (the computations are not presented in the algorithm taught by the teacher), their solutions are marked incorrect and will be drilled further (Seceda & dela Cruz, n. d. ), even though their solutions meant that they understand the problem but resolved to write their solution in their own way. In so doing, bilingual children, feeling that they cannot understand and cannot be understood, are being left out in classroom conversations. When teaching and learning is continued in this manner, this will eventually lead to the bilingual children’s failure in mathematics, adding to the conventional belief that bilingual children cannot engage in mathematics.

Another consequence of teaching mathematics in a “procedural” manner is that children begin to perceive that mathematics makes no sense (Seceda & dela Cruz, n. d. ). This perception will increase children’s capacity to understand something which is not sensible, not practical and not applicable using with the outside world (that is, world outside the classroom). There are only a few researches studying how mathematics can best be taught to bilingual students. Thus, the purpose of this paper is to find which practice is appropriate to use in teaching mathematics for understanding to bilingual students.