Real-world contexts in the mathematics classroom and their impact on the pupils’ language and mathematical learning

Elisa Bitterlich and Marcus Schutte


In the last decades, the role of language in mathematics education and for the learning of mathematics has increasingly caught the attention of many researchers. Many approaches and publications make use of the term ‘academic language’ to describe a desirable and - supposedly - for educational success essential language register that is characterized by special lexical and syntactical features. However, this term is used inconsistently and there is no universal definition for it (Heppt, 2016). Recent studies on the pupils’ use of (academic) language put the focus rather on discursive language skills than on syntactical and lexical ones, what can be viewed as a positive development as more attention is paid to the complexity and situatedness of language within educational settings (e.g. Bitterlich & Schiitte, 2018; Moschkovich, 2018; Quasthoff & Morek, 2015; Sfard, 2012).

The presented research takes up this development and investigates discursive structures during mathematics learning activities through analyzing the use of language during situations of the mathematics classroom. The situational-specific use of language is - following our assumption - a central precondition for the pupils’ opportunities to learn mathematics. Investigating the pupils’ discourse competences within different situations leads to the following question: How do the language- based contributions of the pupils differ in varying situations of the mathematics classroom? To identify changes and particularities in the pupils’ use of language, mathematics lessons of several classes have been video-recorded and selected passages have been analysed by means of interactional analysis (Schiitte, Friesen, & Jung, 2019). During our observations and through our analyses we uncovered scenes which seem to be of interest considering the use of language (respectively, the mathematical discourse) as well as with regard to the assumed opportunities to learn mathematics: The (implicit or explicit) connection of the mathematical content to a real-world context. As this study is located in interactionist approaches of interpretative classroom research, one fundamental methodological assumption is that social interaction is constitutive for learning processes and (mathematical) meaning is negotiated in interaction (Cobb & Bauersfeld, 1995; Schiitte et al., 2019). In this regard, the connection of the mathematical content with a real-world context leads to ditferent opportunities and requirements to use language as well as different opportunities to learn mathematics.

The first part of the paper gives insights into theoretical considerations about the importance of language for the learning of mathematics, also pointing out disadvantages of establishing dichotomies like academic versus everyday language. Additionally, the role of discursive language aspects of real-world contexts in mathematics education, as well as the motives for and the meaning of their use, are illustrated. In the second part, the present study and its fundamental methodological assumptions are outlined. Some results will illustrate that the use of a real-world context in mathematics lessons of Grade 1 can be considered as an important factor in the pupils’ language output. The presented scenes reveal that building bridges between mathematics and everyday life could have beneficial as well as inhibitory consequences for the opportunities to learn mathematics.

Fundamental theoretical considerations

There is a consensus that language is important for learning in a (mathematics) classroom and that language competence in academic language has an influence on pupils’ mathematical achievements (e.g. Bailey, Butler, LaFramenta, & Ong, 2004; Townsend, Filippini, Collins, & Biancarosa, 2012). But while lexical and semantical aspects of academic language attract attention in many studies, discursive aspects have only received the necessary attention in more recent studies (e.g. Bitterlich & Schiitte, 2018; Moschkovich, 2018; Schiitte & Krummheuer, 2017). Previous approaches and researches on academic language that predominantly focus on written texts or generalizable features of academic language as a clearly definable language register “run the risk of not sufficiently analysing actual contextualized instantiations of academic language by language users themselves” (Heller & Morek, 2015, p. 179). But it is necessary to develop an understanding of (academic) language as situated practice. It is the situation, and the context as a whole, that influences the use of language and, vice versa, the use of (academic) language itself affects the context and the following (linguistic) actions. As a consequence, it is important to pay attention to discursive aspects of language, as they can deliver information about how the whole text (orally or written) is characterized.

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