An exploration of French Immersion students' communication during collaborative mathematics problem-solving tasks

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University of New Brunswick


The relationship between language and mathematics is complex, and arguably more so when students are learning mathematics through the medium of a second language. This study aims to describe, interpret, and understand how secondary French immersion mathematics students communicate, that is, how they use and attend to language and mathematics as they work collaboratively on problem-solving tasks in their second language. This study in grounded in sociocultural theory (e.g., Lantolf, 2000; Swain, 2000, 2008; Vygotsky, 1962, 1978) and the concept of the mathematics education register (e.g., Halliday, 1978, Pimm, 1987, 2007; Moschkovich, 2007) as the theoretical frameworks in order to highlight the social nature of learning and the key role of language in learning. With the theoretical frameworks guiding the remainder of the study, literature was reviewed that related to French immersion student achievement in mathematics, tensions inherent in bilingual mathematics classrooms, codeswitching or the use of the first language in second language mathematics, and what it means to “do” mathematics in a second language. This classroom-based study involved multiple site visits and working with 22 Grade 9 French immersion mathematics students in two different classes, along with their classroom teacher. Materials included a mathematics problem-solving task that required students to engage in reading, writing, oral interaction, hands-on modelling, and graphic representations. Data were collected via classroom based audio recordings that were then transcribed verbatim; these data were triangulated with researcher fieldnotes, students’ written texts, and post-hoc stimulated recall interviews. Data were analyzed using coding frameworks for language-related episodes (LREs), mathematics-related episodes (MREs), and instances of first language use using a priori codes as well as emergent codes (Barwell, 2009a, 2009c; Halliday, 1985; Moschkovich, 2002, 2007; Swain & Lapkin, 1998, 2000, 2013). The discourse analysis was extended using Gee’s (2014) theory and method, as well as the associated tools of inquiry (Gee, 2011). Several task-related findings suggested that student talk (rather than teacher talk) dominated the activity, that students mainly talked about the mathematics at hand, and that they used most of the anticipated problem-solving strategies to work through the task, although to varying degrees of thoroughness and success. Results showed that students engaged in various kinds of LREs and MREs, especially related to lexis and lexicogrammar, and also, although to a much lesser extent, other language forms. The LREs involved non-mathematical items, non-academic-mathematical items, and academic-mathematical items. The MREs mainly involved students’ describing mathematical situations and expanding in order to provide explanations. Instances of first language use emerged with the LREs (especially lexical) and the MREs (especially expanding with repeat/restate). The first language was also used to move the task along and for interpersonal interactions (especially vernacular and to express feelings). Theoretical and practical implications for educators and policymakers are given based on the salient findings of the study. Suggestions for future research are also explored.