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What the mathematics teacher needs to know

Mathematics has been called the universal language, and it is certainly true that many ESL students come to FIS with a high degree of proficiency in speaking it. The advantage this confers on teachers and students can be considerable, because it allows existing knowledge to activated as a lead into the teaching of new skills and concepts. Alternatively, it allows students to focus more attention on the language of math, because they already know how to do the problem.

There is, however, a potential disadvantage in the often strong math proficiency of ESL students. It can lead to high levels of frustration when students find that their lack of the English language interferes with their ability to do math that they would otherwise find easy. They go from high achievers in the subject in their own language to strugglers in the math class at FIS. This can be a blow to their self-confidence and self-esteem. It is important therefore that the math teacher does not further undermine the student's confidence by calling into question computational methods that are different from the ones standardly used in our school.

Of course, modern math classes expect students to do much more than computation. Students are required to analyse possible solutions to problems and be able to explain why they chose the method they did, both verbally and in writing. This is a very demanding task for non-native speakers, and it is essential that they get the kind of help they need to perform such tasks successfully. Suggestions on how to provide this support can be found in other pages of this subsite, and there is a book* in the FIS ESL library which lists a number of specific strategies for math teachers in some detail. In common to all of this advice is the fundamental principle that the math teacher at an international school is also a teacher of the English language!

* Second language students in the mainstream classroom: a handbook for teachers in international schools   Sears, C.    (1998) Multilingual Matters, Clevedon


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