Should teachers teach maths in English or Maltese?

‘Scaffolding’ helps students understand maths by drawing on their experience of switching from Maltese to English in everyday life

The conclusions of this study tally with international research that shows that the use of two or more languages can support teaching and learning
The conclusions of this study tally with international research that shows that the use of two or more languages can support teaching and learning

In which language should teachers teach maths to young pupils?

An article published in the Malta Review of Education Research suggests that pupils can benefit from the use of both English and Maltese, especially when students can understand both languages.

The 1999 National Minimum Curriculum had recommended that mathematics, science and technology at primary level, and other subjects such as biology and economics at secondary level, be taught through English.

However, the more recent National Curriculum Framework issued in 2012 left the question open, recognising the need for clear direction on the language of instruction, and calls for “school-based policies”.

The fact is that irrespective of policy documents, the mixing of Maltese and English is an ingrained practice according to Maria Theresa Farrugia, a senior lecturer in the Faculty of Education and the author of this particular study.

“Given this common language practice, I wished to study how teachers might use Maltese and English to support students’ learning of mathematical ideas,” Farrugia writes in her article on the experience of a primary school teacher teaching eight-year-olds who “trans-languaged” using Maltese and English during a series of lessons on the topic of money.

The main focus of her lessons was to teach the children the meaning of the words value, cost and change. In this case, switching from Maltese to English was not done in a “random or careless way”. Instead it provided a useful strategy – known as “scaffolding” – to help students comprehend mathematics topics that drew on pupils’ everyday experiences.

In this case the teacher drew on the pupils’ previous knowledge of money, using related Maltese vocabulary and then introduced the English translations.

The teacher started the first lesson by holding a 20-minute discussion about the coins in use, during which she asked individuals to mention amounts for which a coin existed.

To teach the notion of value the teacher sketched existing coins on the whiteboard in the form of a circle with, for example, 1c written within it. This conversation was held mainly in Maltese, with coin values stated in English (e.g. “ten cents”) as happens in everyday life.

At one point during this discussion, one of the pupils, stated that he would prefer one coin to another because “tiswa ħafna” (it’s worth a lot). In this way students were led to understand the meaning of “value”.

The students involved all used the Maltese language at home.

The author highlights the fact that in this particular classroom, “there was the advantage that both teacher and children shared the same two languages and general cultural background,” and “all participants appeared comfortable with the language experience”.

The conclusions of this study tally with international research that shows that the use of two or more languages can support teaching and learning.

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