Bilingualism and math standards

I am preparing for an upcoming presentation on instructional strategies for young children who are dual-language learners.  I am really fascinated by the language used in the Common Core Mathematics Standards.  You might wonder what bilingualism and mathematics standards could possibly have to do with each other.  Well, I think quite a lot.  These standards remind me of numerous advantages that many bilinguals have been found to experience, such as with problem-solving skills.


Take a look, for example, at the first two goals which you can find on page 6 of the Mathematics Standards (http://www.corestandards.org/Math/):

  1. “Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them. Mathematically proficient students start by explaining to themselves the meaning of a problem and looking for entry points to its solution.”
  2. “Reason abstractly and quantitatively. Mathematically proficient students make sense of quantities and their relationships in problem situations.”

For brevity, I’ll highlight a few particular areas and phrases to illustrate why these standards make me think of bilinguals:

  • “They bring two complementary abilities to bear on problems… the ability to decontextualize—to abstract a given situation and represent it symbolically and manipulate the representing symbols as if they have a life of their own, without necessarily attending to their referents—and the ability to contextualize”
  • “…to pause as needed during the manipulation process in order to probe into the referents for the symbols involved”
  • “…attending to the meaning…not just how to compute”
  • “…knowing and flexibly using”

So, attention, abstraction, symbols, manipulation, meaning, flexibly using—do not these terms also all relate to the natural experience of being bilingual?  Bilinguals attend to the language being used; they may display early understanding that words are abstract and arbitrary symbols to convey meaning that vary by language; they demonstrate the ability to manipulate language use to communicate in one language with one person, the other language with another person, and even both languages simultaneously with certain people in some situations to enhance meaning.  Talk about flexibility!

The mathematics standards are much more than rote memorization and computation; they target underlying cognitive skills in attention, analysis, abstraction, flexibility, and creative thought processes in which bilinguals have been shown to have advantages.

In my mind, this is all the more justification for not only allowing children to maintain their first language, but strongly encouraging and supporting parents’ endeavors to raise their children with more than one language, and therefore, experience the benefits that bilingualism affords them.

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About Brenda K. Gorman

Dr. Gorman is an Associate Professor in Communication Sciences and Disorders at Elmhurst College in Elmhurst, Illinois. She completed her Master’s and Doctorate with a multicultural/bilingual specialization in Communication Sciences and Disorders at The University of Texas at Austin. Brenda worked for many years as a bilingual (Spanish-English) speech-language pathologist serving diverse caseloads for public school districts, early intervention agencies, and a company which she co-founded in 2001. She has an extensive background in working with ELLs and providing professional development to teachers who work with ELLs, and she serves as a clinical advisor to Lingua Health and Grupo Lingua. Brenda has conducted research, published, and presented on topics related to speech and language assessment and intervention in bilingual populations and language and literacy development and disorders. She has taught courses in numerous topic areas ranging from assessment and intervention in bilingual populations, child language and literacy disorders, speech sound disorders, fluency, to adult language disorders and AAC. She co-directed the Reading Acquisition for Spanish Speakers Program (RASPA) and an Early Reading First (ERF) project funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Education while at Marquette University, where she earned tenure in 2013. Brenda is now at Elmhurst College, where she is investigating language and literacy assessment and intervention in bilinguals and co-developing a dual-language (Spanish-English) language and literacy curriculum for preschoolers.

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