Friday, October 3, 2014

Cognitive Academic Language Humor

Sometimes when you are teaching a class of college students there occurs a moment when humor completely takes over and you just have to let it play itself out. Such a moment happened in my graduate class, Math and Diversity, last night when we were discussing the difficulties posed by homophones and words with multiple meanings for English Language Learners. The words were sum or some and product in the context of addition or multiplication. The discussion of the homophones (sum and some) went fine and then we came to the word product when some one said you can put product in your hair.

This led to all kinds of visual comments of people having their hair multiplied or of cards with 2 x 3 = 6 wrapped around their heads or of multiplication facts sticking out of their hair. The English language has such a vast array of words and of words that have multiple meanings that it must be incredibly difficult to learn.

Even in math class, the way words are used academically is so different from their everyday or social meaning. Seemingly simple words like 'find', 'degree', and 'count' all have very specific meanings ini math.
The classic exam question asking the student to 'find x' is a wonderful example of how specific the mathematical usage of a simple word can be. In the example to the left 'find' mean calculate or compute and not just look for as the student thought.

The word "reduce" used in the context of reducing 4/8 to 1/2 is another word that creates problems not only for English learners but for everyone. Is it any wonder that so many young children develop the misconception that 1/2 is smaller than 4/8 when we tell them to reduce 4/8. Even the numbers get smaller.

It is so important to teach the mathematical meanings of words in context, through discussion, free of metaphor or idioms so that English learners can identify the appropiate use of certain terminology in math class.    


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