What’s the Point? Emergent Bilinguals’ Understanding of Multiple-Meaning Words that Carry Everyday and Discipline-Specific Mathematical Meanings

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Abstract

Multiple-meaning words may pose acute challenges to young learners, especially those who speak a home language other than English. The goal of this study was to investigate Emergent Bilinguals’ (EBs) knowledge about words that convey both specific mathematical meanings as well as everyday meanings (e.g., the volume of a triangular prism and the volume of an Iphone). We selected 12 multiple-meaning words for their importance in learning mathematical concepts and procedures. Two studies were conducted sequentially with populations representing distinct profiles of EB learners in US schools: 28 middle schoolers from several cultural and linguistic backgrounds in Study 1 and 32 Spanish-English bilingual fourth graders in Study 2. Given scholarship on challenges associated with academic language, we hypothesized that everyday meanings would be more familiar than mathematical meanings for both populations of EB learners. However, this hypothesis did not play out in either context. We found no significant differences between knowledge of everyday and mathematical meanings for Spanish-English EBs, though there were notable differences by target word. More surprisingly, the population of EBs from multiple language backgrounds demonstrated a greater understanding of mathematical senses of the target words. We examine how knowledge of multiple-meaning words relates to language and literacy skills as well as contextual factors. This study demonstrates the importance of taking into consideration the heterogeneity of the EB population for supporting language and mathematics development of multilingual students.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)84-103
Number of pages20
JournalReading and Writing Quarterly
Volume36
Issue number2
DOIs
StatePublished - Mar 3 2020

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Education
  • Linguistics and Language

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