There is a great deal of research around teaching younger students with English as an Additional Language (EAL) needs, but very little on the effects of language demands with the study of advanced maths.
The most significant study found was from New Zealand, where there are many students arriving from South Asian countries and from Pacific Islands in their late teens. These students often appear to cope well in reading and conversation, but the nuances of questions at this level can cause significant problems. The disadvantage can be as much as 10-20% compared to tackling similar questions in their first language. The students generally did not realise the extent of this disadvantage, so there is a careful line to tread in raising awareness without being demoralising.
General vocabulary is rarely the issue, but rather prepositions, word order and particularly logical structures such as implication, conditionals and negation. Also, for those who have not followed a UK maths curriculum prior to A level, learning English does not necessarily teach basic mathematical terms such as quarter, parallel and circumference. It is therefore important to build up a glossary of these terms along with the more technical words which might also have a more general or alternative meaning, such as gradient or volume. At this level this should be the responsibility of the student.
There is a tendency for students to make little use of teacher instruction or help, relying on written forms, disregarding any words that are not understood, or assuming them to be unimportant.
The steps to assist students are based on common sense: speaking slowly, drawing attention to any possible new words, avoiding using any novel new words in explanations, and ensuring that diagrams and written explanations are used as well as verbal explanation. The difficulties lies in remembering to do this and to check.
The following examples illustrate how maths questions can be complex to interpret:
- “Subtract the result from 16”: most EAL students did result-16 rather than 16-result.
- “More than one”: can be easily confused with “one more than”.
- “Find the probability that exactly 6 bags contain at least 1 faulty item”: “at least” has a specific meaning but students may focus on least or less.
- “How much longer does it take for B to hit the floor?”: “longer” could easily be interpreted as distance rather than time.