Saturday, February 19, 2011

Focus on Math : Language & Mathematic Fluency

new study from the University of Chicago and Harvard University Departments of Psychology hope to answer a very interesting question: "Does learning language change the way we think about number[s]?" (Spaepen et. al, Number Without A Language Model, 1).  The implications of this study could have a very interesting impact on how we think about the role of literacy and language acquisition outside of the English/Language Arts classroom.

Study Summary

The study looked at the mathematical literacy of a population of Nicaraguan "homesigners", that is, profoundly deaf individuals who have not had the benefit of formal sign-language acquisition.  The study says that "[homesigners] use homemade gestures to communicate with the hearing individuals around them." (Spapen, 1).  These unschooled homesigners were compared to several different populations, including control groups made up of individuals without a hearing impairment as well as hearing impaired individuals who had received formal sign-language training.  In a series of experiments designed to elicit an "exact cardinal value", homesigners performed lower than the two control groups, especially on tasks where the exact value was greater than 3.  The study posits that one deficit that may impede the ability for homesigners to represent exact cardinal values is a lack of a "successor function", which is described as the idea that "each natural number n has a value that is exactly n + 1." (Spaepen, 5). The study concludes that:
...we have found that adults who do not have conventional language but are otherwise integrated into a numerate social and cultural world have difficulty generating exact values for sets larger than three. A cultural context in which exact number representations are valued, and a social context in which one’s communicative partners share a counting routine and an associated system of exact number concepts, are not enough to scaffold the creation of a count routine or representations of exact number that are flexible and generalize across domains. (Spaepen, 5).  
Implications for Literacy

I was compelled to blog about this study because it highlights what I've long suspected to be a gross misunderstanding- that mathematical literacy and language acquisition are completely foreign to each other.  We've all heard students who are excellent readers and writers lament that they cannot succeed in their math classes because they are somehow "wired" for linguistic success only.  The reverse is often heard from students who take to numbers naturally.  This study shows that their may be some important overlap in these two areas that may be a key to eliciting gains in these perceived deficit areas.  

Also, this study could provide scientific support for greater collaboration between language educators and their mathematics colleagues.  Teachers who can collaborate on lessons provides a richer experience for their students while minimizing subject-based alienation. Increased Language Arts / Mathematics collaboration also speaks to a greater number of students preferred literacy, often resulting in greater understanding of both subject areas and increased student satisfaction.  

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