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The Pragmatic Demands of Mathematics: Examining Elementary School Students' Oral Language Use in Mathematical Explanations

  • Author(s): Blackstock-Bernstein, Anne
  • Advisor(s): Bailey, Alison L
  • et al.

As new academic standards and assessments are being implemented in the majority of U.S. states in 2014, students are being required to communicate effectively about their mathematical understanding. While linguistic and discourse proficiencies in English (i.e., lexical, grammatical, and genre knowledge) are essential to participating in classroom discussions of mathematics, it is also necessary for students to make use of pragmatic skills in order to ensure that they are effectively communicating. In the current study, I examined the oral explanations of 126 3rd (n=65) and 5th (n=61) grade students who completed a mathematics activity and then explained the mathematical procedures they used. Analyses explored how the complexity of the mathematical procedure (i.e., how many steps were involved) affected the communicative competence of the student's explanation. Additional analyses considered how grade and the English learner (EL) status of the 61 EL students in the sample might influence these relationships. Findings indicate that students who used more complex mathematical procedures struggled to orally communicate the details of their procedures more so than students who used simpler procedures. Younger students (3rd graders) and EL students may be more susceptible to these challenges. Implications for instruction in this era of new standards are considered.

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