One-page dissertation proposal abstract

Background:

Prepare an abstract of the proposed study that describes the study in layman’s terms. The Abstract should be approximately one-page in length.


Ethnography of communication in the mathematics classroom: Abstract

The claim is often made that “all teachers are language teachers.” The idea is that in school, teaching and learning primarily happens through a process of speaking, listening, reading, and writing, so part of what students have to learn in their math classes is how to talk about math. The most obvious part of this is vocabulary; they have to learn what a hypotenuse is, for example, and they have to learn that similar triangles aren’t “similar” in the same way that two animal species, historical figures, or musical styles might be said to be similar. Along with vocabulary, other aspects of “the language of math” are less apparent but just as important. For example, math teachers and mathematicians have discipline-specific ways of giving evidence for their claims, walking through a logical argument, and combining their words with other symbolic systems such as equations and graphs.

No child grows up speaking this variety of academic language at home, but when they arrive at school, some students have an easier time learning it than others. There are numerous possible reasons for a student to have trouble with academic language, but one of the most common is if the language variety they use at home is quite different from the academic variety. Some experts believe that the so-called “achievement gap” between linguistically and culturally diverse students and their mainstream peers is largely caused by a linguistic and cultural mismatch between home and school, and that the effects of this can be mitigated by culturally relevant pedagogy that incorporates explicit instruction in the culture of school in general, and in academic language specifically. In other words, if we can provide direct instruction in the language of math, then all students, and especially linguistically and culturally diverse students, will have an easier time learning mathematics content.

One challenge facing educators in implementing culturally relevant mathematics curriculum is that the research base in educational linguistics is not as clear about the language of mathematics as it is in other content areas like social studies and science. The Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol (SIOP) model, one common approach to integrating content and language instruction for English learners, specifies that each lesson must have clearly articulated objectives related to language as well as content, but it is difficult for mathematics instructors to identify language objectives to match their content objectives. This study offers a way to make that connection. Through year-long observations in secondary (grade 7–12) math classrooms, linguistic analysis of recorded classroom discourse, and interviews with teachers and students, it will be possible to identify not only the language used in the classroom but also the way that language is embedded in the social context of the classroom. Viewing the classroom as a cultural environment, this study will use research methods from linguistic anthropology to describe the social practices that take place there, including the teachers’ use of linguistic forms characteristic of mathematics, as well as the way students’ language may or may not conform to this model. In this way, connections can be made between linguistic form and pedagogic function that may be useful to math educators.

Interviewing students will also provide insight into their developing sense of themselves; of particular interest is whether they consider themselves to be “math people” or not, and why. One hypothesis is that students use the language of math as a way of expressing a “math person” identity, so that ultimately teaching students how to talk about math and helping them to develop a sense of themselves as “math people” will prove to be critical components of mathematics instruction.

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