## A universal design for learning strategy to enhance the teaching of word problems in a multilingual mathematics classroom

##### Abstract

Mathematics word problems have always been a challenging concept in mathematics, not only on the part of the learners but also on the part of the teachers, albeit for different reasons. Learners often struggle to solve mathematics word problems and many teachers find it challenging to teach this genre of mathematics, for various reasons. Mathematics word problems are problems presented in text form and thus require learners to be proficient in the language of learning and teaching to understand and solve them. However, most learners do not master this genre of mathematics as they are not proficient in English, which is the medium of instruction in most cases. The challenge of teaching mathematics word problems is further aggravated by the fact that most South African schools are multilingual (i.e. a number of different languages are spoken in class, not only the language of learning and teaching) and research has shown that teaching in such contexts is complex. Mathematics teachers in multilingual classrooms, therefore, face challenges that hinder the teaching process. This necessitates the need to formulate a universal design for learning strategy to enhance the teaching of mathematics word problems in multilingual mathematics classrooms. Universal design for learning is an educational framework that has proven to be effective in terms of the teaching of learners in diverse classrooms, including multilingual classrooms. This study seeks to formulate universal design for learning guidelines in an effort to assist in the effective teaching of mathematics word problems in multilingual mathematics classrooms.
A participatory action research approach was adopted to generate the empirical data and ensure that the voices of all the stakeholders were captured. The study involved mathematics teachers, English and mathematics teachers, mathematics literacy teachers, Grades 10, 11 and 12 mathematics learners, a mathematics head of department and the principal to explore the following research question: How can we utilise the aspects of universal design for learning to develop an effective teaching strategy for mathematics word problems in a multilingual mathematics classroom? The data were generated through meetings, forums, lesson observations, document analysis (learners’ homework and class work) and teacher-to-teacher observations as well as reflective discussions. Critical emancipatory research was adopted as the lens that underpins this study. The adoption of critical emancipatory research was informed by its requirement that all the people concerned (including the marginalised) should be included in the research process and that their voices should be heard, respected and acknowledged as contributing to the broader goal of the research study, which is to bring about a change in their situation (teaching of mathematics word problems in a multilingual mathematics classroom). Critical discourse analysis was adopted as the tool to analyse the discourses in this study. The selection of critical discourse analysis was inspired by the fact that it enables the researcher to analyse not only text data but also any visual cues and behaviour displayed by the participants. My observations also assisted in establishing the deeper meaning of the claims.
Six major themes emerged from the data analysis of this study, justifying the need for teachers to look carefully into their teaching practices and adapt new ways of teaching in an effort to optimise learning and enhance the solving of mathematics word problems. These themes thus suggest the teaching implications for teaching of this mathematics genre. Firstly, the research findings indicate that learners lack the necessary reading skills to comprehend mathematics word problems. Secondly, learners also lack the mathematical vocabulary and register needed to comprehend and solve mathematics word problems. Thirdly, the learners’ inability to visualise mathematics word problems makes it difficult to procedurally solve these problems. Fourthly, ambiguity also causes a lack of understanding, resulting in the failure to solve mathematics word problems. Fifthly, the teachers’ inability to assist learners in developing effective problem-solving skills, especially in terms of solving mathematics word problems, was a major concern. Lastly, the teachers’ negative attitude towards the use of learners’ home languages as a possible resource to aid learners in the solving of mathematics word problems was mentioned as a challenge that had to be addressed. The challenges that emerged from the study had implications for teaching and thus required the teaching of mathematics word problems to be approached differently to enable learners to solve these problems. A universal design for learning strategy that encourages the application of the three principles, namely multiple means of representation, multiple means of action and expression as well as multiple means of engagement was, therefore, recommended in order to enhance the teaching of mathematics word problems and to encourage teachers to be reflective about their practices and adapt them accordingly to remove learning barriers.

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