Learning the Language of Mathematics: An Exploration of Children's Experiences of Learning English and Mathematics at School and Elsewhere in Multilingual, Postcolonial Singapore

Project Number
AFR 01/16 SAJ

Project Duration
July 2016 - June 2019


This three year project aims to explore teaching and learning in the context of the English-medium primary school in a multilingual society where for many children English is not a dominant language. The project objectives are to explore learning, specifically to examine pupils’ experiences of learning English and mathematics through language in three primary schools at primary one, three, and five. The project aims to investigate how these experiences enable pupils to learn the language and concepts of mathematics. Additionally, the research intends to examine teaching: it seeks to identify processes and features of teaching in mathematics lessons at these different school levels that attend to language for concept development and learning, to understand teachers’ rationale for their pedagogic, linguistic, and interactional choices, and to find out whether and how far the language of the English curriculum generalises to the mathematics curriculum. The project is motivated by the research team’s professional experience in teacher education, their previous research, and by theory. It aims to contribute to theory development in the three areas of disciplinary language and literacy, the role of language in teaching and learning, and the situatedness and transfer of language learning. Disciplinary language and literacy posits that in knowledge economies, such as Singapore’s, school subjects are characterized by increasingly sophisticated texts and distinct ways of thinking. The project aims to provide empirical evidence from the primary school to build this largely theoretical area focused on older students. A consideration of the role of language in teaching and learning is particularly important in a multilingual environment, especially one where English is to be learnt as a subject on the curriculum and where it is the medium of learning. Thus, the project seeks to find out where, when, and how pupils are exposed to academic language and how they use it in lessons to learn. As the project is exploratory, it will employ a qualitative approach, using the tools of survey, interview, observation, and document analysis to uncover participants’ perceptions and attitudes as well as the reality of pedagogic practice. The data gathered will provide both the broad educational policy and curricula context and details of individual experiences for analysis. The findings may suggest enhancements to mathematics pedagogy and English and mathematics curriculum development at specific levels of the research primary schools. Similarly, the data may be important for teacher education at the NIE and professional development courses at the ELIS/MOE with a consequent wider impact. The perception data from pupils and teachers will deepen understanding of teaching/learning processes and the involvement of language. This could inform an upcoming review of the English syllabus and demonstrate the implementation of the 2013 mathematics syllabus. The project involves institutional collaboration among the NIE, three primary schools, and the ELIS/MOE and will draw on expertise from all. It also involves inter-disciplinary perspectives across the school and NIE departments of maths and English. Therefore, different points of view are built into the complete process of the research that could potentially challenge the received wisdom of each discipline. The collaboration will enable a focus on pupil experience through observing the same pupils using English to learn the disciplines of both English and maths in school with the ultimate benefit of understanding that experience and so improving it. (541)

Funding Source

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