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Case Study: Confused by Math Instruction in a Foreign Language

Wednesday, December 9th, 2009

One of my favorite success stories is a student who came to me as a fourth grader. She was extremely confused about math because her first three years of elementary school were at a French language school. Not only was math taught in French, which was not her first language, but the math instructors were also really bad. Also, she would get emotional about math—sometimes she’d get so upset that she would freeze up.

We started with a lot of math drill, reviewing arithmetic concepts that were unclear from years of math instruction in French. Then we moved on to mixing that with a review of what she was working on in class. We worked very slowly, and at the end of every page or every problem I would give her a high five and a special sticker. (Now, after all I’ve learned about rewards and motivation, I might not give her a sticker every single time.)

Another helpful strategy was paying attention to her emotions of frustration and anxiety, and modeling how to handle them. When she got frustrated or anxious, I would stay calm, just like I hoped she’d learn to stay calm in the face of a challenge.

One day she got really upset about some things in her life that were stressing her out, and I could tell she needed a break. (I was trying to build on what I’d learned from working with another student who broke down during tutoring once.) So we packed up our work and spent the rest of the session leisurely exploring the beautiful library where we met for tutoring.

Very gradually, things improved to the point where she even told me that she “loved” certain kinds of problems. This made me so proud of her! It was amazing to see her going from feeling scared and confused about math to actually being comfortable and delighted with it. Overall, I think what worked for her was just personalized and caring attention with a stress-free vibe.

Related Posts:

Case Study: Regaining Love of Math
Case Study: Learning Geometry with a Spatial Disability

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