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March 18, 2002

Education professor helping reshape math instruction for bilingual students

By Jennifer McNulty

Judit Moschkovich is on the front lines of the struggle to make mathematics more accessible to all students.

"Mathematics courses, particularly algebra, continue to filter out large numbers of students, particularly African Americans and Latinos."

--Judit Moschkovich

Moschkovich, an assistant professor of education at UCSC, specializes in the learning and teaching of mathematics, particularly among bilingual students and English language learners. Underlying her research is a strong commitment to social justice and equity.

Latinos are severely underrepresented in scientific fields, and there are wide gaps between the performance of Euro-American and Latino students on standardized mathematics achievement tests, said Moschkovich. "Mathematics courses, particularly algebra, continue to filter out large numbers of students, particularly African Americans and Latinos," she said.

About 20 years ago, educators began to reform mathematics instruction in the United States, publishing instruction standards based on research that focused on how students learn mathematics. But scant research addresses the needs of English language learners (ELL) as they learn mathematics, she said.

There are an estimated 5 million ELL students in the United States, including about 1 million in California, said Moschkovich. "If these students are going to be successful, we've got to find ways to support their success in all subjects, including mathematics," said Moschkovich, the principal investigator on a five-year project funded by the National Science Foundation.

The project, "Mathematical Discourse in Bilingual Settings: Learning and Teaching Mathematics in Two Languages," examines mathematical discussions among students who are learning English and explores strategies to support mathematics learning in secondary classrooms. Moschkovich is identifying student strengths in communicating mathematically and expects her work will help teachers develop classroom strategies that build on these strengths.

"Educators need to build on the competencies of their students to open up the world of mathematics," she said.

Early studies of bilingual students learning mathematics focused on the obstacles Latino students faced solving word problems, understanding individual vocabulary terms, or translating English to mathematical symbols. As a result, teaching practices emphasize vocabulary and comprehension skills, said Moschkovich.

By contrast, current research in mathematics education focuses less on vocabulary and more on classroom discussions. Researchers have recently begun to consider mathematical discussions in bilingual classrooms and where students are learning English.

"These studies are a first step in understanding the relationship between language and learning mathematics," said Moschkovich. But more attention needs to be paid to the specific ways in which bilingual students participate in mathematical conversations, particularly as classroom activities shift from silent, individual tasks to more verbal and social ones, she said.

"The teaching of mathematics has really changed in positive ways, and those changes may present both challenges and opportunities for bilingual students," she said. "Students are now expected to explain how they arrived at their solutions, describe their conjectures, prove their conclusions, and present arguments. That's a world away from the days of drill-and-practice."

Moschkovich is completing analyses of data gathered in several classrooms, including an eighth-grade bilingual mathematics classroom, where students were constructing and discussing tables, graphs, and equations for stories of bicycle trips, and a sixth-grade dual immersion classroom where students were learning algebra.

A smaller part of the project involves interviews and short-term classroom observations with five secondary mathematics teachers who work with Latino students. "We wanted to document their perspectives and hear about their struggles and successes in teaching mathematics in a bilingual setting," said Moschkovich.

As part of the project, videotapes that present examples of mathematical discussions in bilingual classrooms are available for use in workshops for teacher professional development and teacher education courses. "Video clips from real classrooms help ground discussions among teachers, student teachers, and undergraduates," said Moschkovich. "These discussions can uncover assumptions about what English language learners can--or cannot--do in math classes, and beliefs about how these students should be taught."

"We're developing descriptions of what learning mathematics in two languages involves beyond acquiring technical vocabulary and translating word problems," she said. "If we're successful, we'll be helping teachers to open the gate to success in math for more students. That, to me, is a laudable goal."

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