Why We're Here

While substituting in a 4th-grade class this morning, during Math block I kept feeling a tug on my sleeve, and one student (whose parents were, I believe, from China) asked me to read a word problem to her. During the course of the class, she insistently asked me to read and explain every single problem to her.

At one point, I made an offhand, meant-to-be-encouraging comment like “Sure, I don’t mind explaining that for you… these are tough problems”. The student became quite indignant, and with arms akimbo and a big frown said: “No! Problems easy! I just can’t read them!” And she was right.

The problem was a ten-line mess of English which involved students playing several games of chess, then predicting how many more games they would require to be tied. But the actual problem was 7+2=9. Once I read it aloud, the student knew the answer within milliseconds.

I reflected to myself that I had unconsciously made the mistake of conflating math ability with linguistic ability, and taken her clear need for language help as a sign that she needed some degree of math help. She didn’t. In my role as an ESL teacher, I need to fight against the snap judgment that surface comprehension of one particular language indicates something about the skill of a student to comprehend what’s actually being asked. They weren’t hard problems; she just couldn’t read them.

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