
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 EuroAmerican 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 fiveyear 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 drillandpractice."
Moschkovich is completing analyses of data gathered in several classrooms, including
an eighthgrade bilingual mathematics classroom, where students were constructing
and discussing tables, graphs, and equations for stories of bicycle trips, and a
sixthgrade dual immersion classroom where students were learning algebra.
A smaller part of the project involves interviews and shortterm 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 canor cannotdo 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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