« Bad Students or Bad Situation? | Main | Assess All Students Before Assisting Any Students »

Prevent Confusing Language From Confusing Students

Confused Student.jpg
In Academic Fluency: A Key to Academic Proficiency, I wrote that proficiency in an academic subject depends in part on fluency in that subject's language. Now, here's a key to helping students achieve such fluency: anticipating and alleviating confusion when words have different meanings in academic subjects than they have in everyday language.

Such words are especially common in math where, for example, reducing a fraction to lowest terms has no effect on its value (e.g., 6/8 = 3/4). And where we borrow a "1" when subtracting even though we're not going to return it.

It would be tempting to try to prevent confusion by replacing words like "reduce" and "borrow" with more precise language such as "convert" and "take" (or "steal"?), respectively. But this might create more confusion than it prevents, since students are sure to encounter the confusing language in various resources and other classes.

So rather than replace confusing words, be sure to proactively discuss with students how their meanings in your class are different from their meanings in other contexts. Also be sure to avoid shortening expressions until you're sure students understand what they mean (e.g., telling students to "reduce it" as opposed to "reduce it to lowest terms").

As for assessing students' understanding of language inconsistencies, try True-False questions where students have to explain why each statement is true or false. Example: "When you reduce a fraction to lowest terms, the new fraction has a lower value than the original fraction."

Just a few ideas to prevent confusing language from confusing students. Feel free to borrow steal them.

Image provided by Phillip Martin with permission

Join my mailing list for announcements about webinars and the work I do to improve teaching and learning.

Notice: We recently upgraded our comments. (Learn more here.) If you are logged in as a subscriber or registered user and already have a Display Name on edweek.org, you can post comments. If you do not already have a Display Name, please create one here.
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.


Most Viewed On Teacher



Recent Comments