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Rethinking the Teaching of Mathematics for Emergent Bilinguals

Ji Yeong I, Hyewon Chang, Ji-Won Son
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
Mathematics Education - An Asian Perspective
[Reviewed by
Karl-Dieter Crisman
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A familiar question for many North American MAA members is teaching English-language learners of varying ability levels.  We know that for much mathematics instruction, adapting material for this can be a challenge (think of related rates problems in calculus, for instance).  At the primary level, ELL issues are mainstream to the point of most of my pre-service students obtaining ELL certification in addition to their standard certification, but at many tertiary institutions, this question can often be mostly about visa students.
Yet it isn't so simple, as I imagine most of us have experienced.  In reading the book under review, I immediately thought of one of my domestic Brazilian-heritage math majors, whose English, in general, is no different from that of any other domestic student and whose entire education has been in English, in the USA.  She will never be identified as needing services (ELL or otherwise), and yet on multiple occasions (including in-class presentation) she has commented on her feeling a lack of mathematical vocabulary in English.
Where to get a broader perspective?  The book under review, which asks the question of how mathematics teachers in South Korea address Korean-language learners (KLL's), points us in one direction.  Their research explicitly includes as KLL's children who are native Korean speakers, but whose earlier mathematics training was in some other language.  Although the results themselves are fairly modest and mostly about more "traditional" KLL's with one or both parents having moved to Korea without much Korean language skill, just having this on the table in math education research (not to mention keeping an eye out for it in our classrooms) is valuable.
The first third of the book is, roughly speaking, a review on the role of multiculturalism in Korea today, how primary school teachers are educated, and how the research questions in the study relate to the much larger literature on ELLs.  Readers should note that the term used for multicultural, 다묺화 (Da-Mun-Wha), is indeed what the South Korean government uses, but (according to many of my Korean students, including some who would count as "multicultural" for the purposes of this study) has at least residual pejorative connotation, so one should be careful using it.
The remainder analyzes a 43-question survey with 79 fully usable responses, along with two one-lesson observations and interviews with in-service teachers who had responded to the survey.  As an example, many respondents had indeed taught multicultural students (the proportion of such students overall in Korea only recently passed the one percent mark!) but had not received math-specific KLL training.  Similarly, despite most respondents having the desire for all students to achieve at high levels and feel a part of the class, there was much less agreement on whether KLL's should e.g. be given easier assignments or placed in mixed language groups.  The case studies are limited by being one observation each but have similar results, such as one teacher with no formal math-and-KLL training coping by using cards and classroom props with all math terms in Korean, Russian, and Chinese (the dominant languages), and the other seeming to guide KLL's to more computational problems than verbally richer ones.
This book obviously will not have direct application for me, but I think that literature of this kind, even (especially?) from an unfamiliar perspective, can help bring into focus the need for KLL (and, presumably, ELL) training specific to mathematics - for our students, and for ourselves.  Not because the teachers (or us) are incompetent or uncaring - indeed, some of the comments in the book about the classroom observations seemed a bit unfair, judged using unrealistic standards for any extremely busy elementary school teacher with limited multicultural training.  But it is useful simply because seeing our questions in a different guise can help clarify them.
Unfortunately, though the MAA at large may be familiar with voices advocating for different approaches to teaching math in diverse communities (Rochelle Gutiérrez, who is cited in this book, recently gave an invited lecture at MathFest), finding practical help along these lines is much more difficult.  Finding coursework for our pre-service (or in-service) teachers focusing specifically on the connection between mathematics and ELL looks to be a challenge, even at elite institutions (the few I did find focused more on general questions of cultural diversity, with language as only part of that).  Publishing work like this in monographs intended only for researchers in math education, rather than more accessible articles, doesn't help.  So while this book got me thinking, we still have a ways to go before we learn how to sustainably train our teachers, and their teachers, how to serve their English language learning mathematics students with full respect paid to both the mathematics and the cultural-linguistic issues at stake.
Karl-Dieter Crisman teaches mathematics at Gordon College in Massachusetts, where he also gets to work on open source software, the mathematics of voting, and examining connections between all of these and issues of belief and faith.​