Theissue of meeting the needs of EAL children within English primary schools has becomingincreasingly prominent in recent years as the number of pupils within thisbracket has risen. An EAL child is defined simply as one who has a languageother than English as their first language (Ofsted, 2013). Meanwhile, theirfirst language refers to the language that the child was exposed to duringtheir early development and one that they continue to be surrounded by withintheir local community or household (Department for Education, 2014). Thisencompasses children who have recently moved to the UK and those who have livedwithin the UK for a long period or were born in the UK, but speak anotherlanguage within their home (MAAS, 2017). The number of state-funded primaryschool children who encounter a language other than English at home has been increasingfor more than a decade and rose by 0.
5%, to 20.6%, between January 2016 and2017 (Department for Education, 2017a). Moreover, there is great disparity interms of EAL pupil numbers across the country with a far greater proportion ofEAL children within primary schools located in certain parts of England. Forexample, 55.
5% of primary school children within Inner London have EAL,compared to just 7.1% of children located in schools within the North East ofthe country (Statista, 2017). Whilethe language barrier associated with EAL children may initially be regarded as amore prominent issue for literacy, the changing landscape of mathematics inprimary schooling may show this to be as much a concern for maths as for anyother subject. For example, with discussion and the deeper engagement of keyconcepts, such as those developed through reasoning and word problems, at theheart of the mastery approach to mathematics, it appears a requirement forlinguistic skills and an understanding of key mathematical terms are becomingincreasingly prevalent in primary classrooms (NCETM, 2014). Therefore, it isimperative that mathematical teaching methods are able to support EAL learners.The importance of this is reflected in the fact that sections 4.5 and 4.6 ofthe National Curriculum (2013) stress the need for inclusion of EAL pupils andthe development of lessons which not only meet their needs, but also allowthese pupils to develop their use of English.
Moreover, this is reinforced inthe Teachers’ Standards which state a requirement to adapt lessons to meet theneeds of all pupils (Department for Education, 2013b). Statisticssupport the notion that primary-age EAL pupils display poorer performance thantheir classmates across a range of subjects. In 2017, the average performanceof EAL children in Key Stage 2 SATs in mathematics, reading and writingcombined was lower than those with English as a first language (58% to 61%).However, when mathematics performance is taken in isolation, this trend isreversed with 76% of EAL children meeting attainment targets, in comparison to75% of children with English as their first language (Department for Education,2017b). However, Strand and Demie (2005) acknowledged that while EAL childrenwho had attained fluency in English outperformed those with English as a firstlanguage, and dramatically outperformed EAL children who had not yet masteredtheir use of English, they suggested there are a range of factors whichinfluence this performance. It was stated that issues such as age, ethnicbackground, SEN and gender also played such a role in Key Stage 2 SATsperformance of these children that their status as an EAL child became almostirrelevant. Therefore, it was suggested that it would be misleading tointerpret these SATs statistics as an indicator that all EAL pupils are able toperform well in maths. Main FocusThefindings presented above suggest the issue of EAL pupil performance is complexand susceptible to an array of factors.
This essay will examine primary EALpupils and their mathematical performance, focusing on barriers and teachingbest practice with regards to mathematical word problems. This area has beenchosen as word problems do not solely rely on mathematical symbols and numbers;instead they present calculations within the context of narratives, often usingreal-world scenarios in doing so. Therefore, unpicking these language-heavymathematical problems may represent a challenge for EAL children whosemathematical ability may be high, but their English language skills are stilldeveloping (TESS, 2017). It has been argued that the use of mathematical wordproblems is vital for children, as the use of narratives and word problems canaid understanding and help pupils make sense of not only the problems at hand,but also of the wider world (Bruner, 1986; 1991). This importance is reflectedin the National Curriculum’s (2013a) assertion that children should becomefamiliar with mathematical vocabulary in Key Stage One, before developingskills in reasoning and two-step word problems during Key Stage Two.
Ithas been suggested that a tactic employed by all children – both EAL andnon-EAL – is to identify key terms from mathematical word problems and respondto, and construct answers around, these rather than unpicking the entirequestion (Haylock, 2014). Moreover, linguistically reading between the lines isalso integral in mathematical word problem solving ability (Barwell, 2011). Therefore,EAL pupils with limited English may be unable to identify these key words andapproach the question in the same way as their monolingual peers. Drawing on myown classroom experience, the barrier that language can bring to mathematicalperformances was witnessed. While observing a Year 3 class, a new-to-the-countryEAL child who possessed limited English was noted. The child was able to answerbasic mathematical calculations on an iPad; a situation in which no spokenlanguage was needed and the only linguistic decoding required was recognisingthe on-screen numbers and mathematical symbols.
However, when language wasintroduced, in this case by the teacher verbally asking questions, the pupilwas unable to answer. A further development of this was observed in a Year 6class in which an EAL child was competent in answering mathematical questions,until word problems were introduced. At this point, the child’s performancedropped dramatically, until a member of staff sat with the child and aided thedecoding of these questions.
This suggests the importance of clarity in thelanguage that teachers use in word problems and that, where possible, the useof support staff can help to scaffold the learning of EAL pupils. Meanwhile,numerous studies cite the importance of basing word problems in real-lifecontexts which are familiar to EAL children. Barwell’s (2003) seminal work regardingan EAL and non-EAL child working together to construct maths word problems, foundthe monolingual child used the intentional state of the EAL child buying a giftfor her mother as inspiration for the problem. The result was that the EALchild was able to answer the constructed two-stage word problem, partly as theproblem was relatable and familiar.
Unfamiliar contexts can create unnecessarybarriers for all pupils; however, the cultural differences faced by some EALpupils could exacerbate this problem. For example, a question asking childrento calculate the price of an item after a discount coupon has been applied may confusechildren unfamiliar with the concept of discount coupons due to their culturalbackground (Martiniello, 2008). Thisnotion of interpreting word problems in relation to real-life contexts is supportedby proponents of the situational model.
This theory asserts that wheninterpreting word problems, children use real-world knowledge and experiencesto develop their understanding, rather than by transferring the word problem sentencesdirectly into calculations (Ambrose and Molina, 2013). This suggests care mustbe taken by teachers constructing word problems, with a need for clarity, aswell as being tailored to the linguistic needs of EAL pupils. For example,Barwell (2003) notes children from certain countries may confuse the words’for’ and ‘from’. If a word problem states an individual has a certain amountof money to buy a gift ‘for’ a relative, but this is misconstrued as a gift’from’ a relative, this may alter the meaning of the question and become abarrier to the learning. Meanwhile,it has been found that EAL pupils are more likely to be successful in solvingmaths word problems if they are presented in their native language (Bautista,Mitchelmore and Mulligan, 2009). It has also been shown that bilingual childrenmay face difficulties when there is a contrast between the language ofinstruction and that of retrieval in maths word problems. Therefore, if a childis more proficient in their home language, they may initially encode andretrieve the answer to a word problem in their home language. However, wheninstruction is given in a different language, children retrieving in their homelanguage display weaker performance than those for whom instruction andretrieval is the same language (Marian and Fausey, 2006; Saalbachet al, 2013; Kempert, Saalbach and Hardy, 2011).
Moreover, Kempert, Saalbach andHardy (2011) concluded the language used by teachers during the modeling processis also pivotal. This underlines the importance of practitioners paying closeattention to the language of the classroom. Kempert, Saalbach and Hardy (2011)found while pupils with developing English skills struggled due to instructiondecoding, these pupils showed improvement when instruction was given in theirhome language. This, therefore, suggests language problems can play a majorrole in poor performance and may act as a learning barrier for EAL pupils. Thisissue of instructional language means children may face a barrier atthe earliest stage of their attempt to answer the problem.
There may be severalways in which this issue could be addressed. Firstly, teachers could instructin the child’s home language. This could be an option in the early stages ofthe child’s journey to becoming proficient in English and would be phased outas proficiency increases. However, this solution itself raises several furtherproblems. For example, would instructing in the child’s home language hindertheir development of English? Also, in terms of ability and resources, is itrealistic for teachers to instruct in the child’s home language? Therefore, mayfocusing on developing the child’s English proficiency be a stronger option?This may entail the child undergoing a tailored, fast-track programme to developtheir English skills. However, this again raises questions regarding theavailability of resources to facilitate such a programme, despite the fact thatschools can receive funding to aid the support of EAL children (NALDIC, 2017). Iwas able to observe a further option to this issue within a Year 6 class.During a lesson of mathematical word problems, the teacher put the class intopairs and purposefully placed an EAL child with a higher-ability non-EAL pupil.
This lesson involved partner discussion regarding the problems and thisapproach scaffolded the learning of the EAL child as they were able to discussand clarify the mathematical concepts and vocabulary with their partner. Therewere, in fact, some points in which the partner became almost a teacher to theEAL child, picking up on incorrect use of vocabulary and misconceptions. Thiscertainly worked well within this particular lesson; however, it is unclear whether,if continued in the long-term, this would have a detrimental impact on thepartner’s learning and progression. Afurther issue which teachers must be mindful of is that EAL children may quicklyappear to be proficient in English, however, it takes far longer for thesechildren to become secure in using academic and classroom language (Thomas and Collier,1997).
This suggests another area that teachers must pay close attention to in supportingthe mathematical word problem performance of EAL pupils; continuous assessmentfor learning. By this it is meant that a teacher will only successfully meetthe needs of EAL children if they deploy a robust approach to continual pupilmonitoring and assessment in which they remain aware of the abilities, languagegaps and understanding that their EAL pupils exhibit. In doing so, the teacherwill be able to use the most appropriate language within their word andreasoning problems to meet the needs of their EAL pupils and remove potentialbarriers to the learning. A further way in which teachers may compose word problems meeting theneeds of EAL pupils could be through the reduction of linguistic complexity.This is important as research has shown that EAL pupils who are stilldeveloping their use of English may fail to recognise key mathematical languageand inferences. For example, terms such as ‘more than’ and ‘less than’ havemathematical connotations that may be lost on EAL pupils.
Therefore,simplifying the use of language in maths problems can help to remove thisbarrier (Stern and Lehrndorfer, 1992; Kempert, Saalbach andHardy, 2011). Moreover, not only doesthis have a positive affect on EAL pupils, doing so also has little-to-noimpact on the performance of monolingual children (Abedi and Lord, 2001).Therefore, simplifying the language of word problems appears to be one way inwhich teachers can scaffold the learning of EAL pupils without simplifying themathematical content or having any detrimental impact on non-EAL children.
Meanwhile, Martiniello (2008) outlined a scenario in which languagechoices created problems for EAL pupils. In this example, confusion arose whenthe word ‘one’ was used as a pronoun within a word problem, with EAL pupilsseeing the word and failing to make the connection to pronouns, insteadbelieving it to refer purely to a number. This small piece of linguisticconfusion prevented these children from accessing the learning and being ableto give a correct answer to the problem. It has been suggested that confusionwithin a word problem, such as a child being unsure of whether a word is beingused as a verb, pronoun or a noun, can create such a level of confusion thatall of the child’s attention and working memory is focused on attempting todecode the language, rather than the mathematical problem (Shaftel,Belton- Kocher, Glasnapp and Poggio, 2006). Therefore, this again stresses theimportance of teachers being mindful of language choices within word problems.However,it is not only overly simplistic to suggest that all EAL children struggle whenfaced with mathematical word problems, but research has also suggested this isuntrue. Bilingual children who are fluent in English have been shown tooutperform monolingual children, while bilingual pupils often make a greaterdegree of progress throughout the schooling system than their monolingual peers(Cajkler and Hall, 2009).
Moreover, research has also found that gaps in thelinguistic knowledge of EAL pupils may not be as great a barrier to learning asfirst feared. Conversely, bilingual children, as they have learned twolanguages, may be proficient at making inferences and using guesswork when theyencounter unknown words or phrases. In this regard, bilingual children may showa greater degree of perseverance when encountering confusion and ambiguity inword problems (Ambrose and Malina, 2013; Marinova-Todd, 2012; Bialystok, 2009).
Furthermore,studies have found that some of the previously-cited challenges faced by EALchildren with regards to mathematical word problems are shared by monolingualpupils. Verschaffel, Greer and De Corte (2000) notedthat word problems in mathematics often cause problems for all students. Thiscorrelates with my own experience within schools in which many non-EAL,high-ability Year 6 pupils struggled with word problems and even those with highliteracy ability would occasionally misread questions and give incorrectanswers. One example of this came in a lesson on percentages.
Children were asked;’A shop owner has reduced the cost of a CD by 20%. The CD originally cost £12.What is the discounted price?’ However, some children, particularly two at thehigher end of the literacy ability spectrum, misread the question and onlycalculated how much 20% of £12 is; they did not subtract this from the originalprice. Therefore, this suggests that while EAL pupils may struggle with mathsword problems, some high-ability pupils who have English as a first languagemay also encounter difficulties, albeit for a very different reason. This onceagain suggests that with regards to word problems, teachers must pay attentionto wording and modelling if children across the ability spectrum are to be ableto successfully access the learning. Meanwhile,Barwell (2010) suggests that the benefit of drawing on real-life experience mayalso be applicable to monolingual pupils.
However, he asserts that it may leadto more of a pronounced impact for EAL pupils. For example, monolingualchildren may have a greater arsenal of experience regarding the language andtypes of discourse found in the classroom in comparison to EAL children, andtherefore the presence of real-life connections may be one of a limited numberof resources available to EAL pupils and therefore its importance may becomemagnified (Moschkovich, 1996). Furthermore, while it has been suggested thatmonolingual pupils also face challenges regarding mathematical word problems, studieshave depicted a continuing attainment gap for many EAL children (Cajkler andHall, 2009). Moreover, it has been suggested that while children who are highlyproficient in English as well as their native language do indeed perform wellin a wide range of subjects, those who do not reach such high levels of Englishproficiency may not. For example, children who fail to attain more than a lowlevel of linguistic skill and proficiency in both English and their nativelanguage may be subject to a cognitive disadvantage in relation to children whoare monolingual (Baker and Hornberger, 2001; Clarkson, 1992).