Bold, Christine Elizabeth
Making sense of mathematical language in a primary classroom.
The Open University.
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This dissertation describes a classroom-based research project on the language of primary school mathematics as used in three mathematics lessons and eight structured interventions with children. My aim is to analyse the classroom dialogue and consider the effectiveness of the participants’ communication processes as they try to share their understanding of meanings of mathematical language. Literature from several research disciplines informs the analysis, although my prime interest is communication and thought processes. Methods were refined during a pilot project for Stage 1 of the EdD in the same classroom. My research shows that in some situations, mathematical language is far from precise in meaning, and the communicative processes used to make it potentially shareable are often tentative and transient according to the situation. In particular, I question the idea of setting mathematics into everyday contexts in order to improve communicative relevance, because children bring their own previous knowledge and experience to the interpretation of each situation. My analysis highlights that reference to everyday contexts might not be effective in communicating the meaning of probabilistic language. Part of the difficulty lies with probabilistic words also having everyday meanings, but the main difficulty is that few life events can be given probabilities such as ‘certain’ and ‘even chance’. Gestures and pictorial images are also influential when trying to communicate one’s understanding of meaning. A tentative conclusion is that referring to proportional relationships involving number, rather than real-life events might provide opportunity for more effective communication of probabilistic meanings. Teachers need to be aware that the language of mathematics is not always precise and that pictorial images and gesture have a powerful effect on the development of a shared understanding of meaning
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