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Ufer, Stefan and Bochnik, Katrin (2020): The Role of General and Subject-specific Language Skills when Learning Mathematics in Elementary School. In: Journal für Mathematik-Didaktik, Vol. 41: pp. 81-117 [PDF, 653kB]


The role of skills in the language of instruction for mathematics learning is well established by longitudinal studies at the primary school level. Explanations for these relations lead to the question: are they mostly due to general, domain-overarching language skills, or does the command of subject-specific language registers play an important role? Integrating prior research threads, we propose two instruments to measure subject-specific language skills in mathematics: One measuring mathematical vocabulary, and one measuring mathematical text comprehension. We report on a longitudinal study with N = 237 German grade 3 students, which investigated the predictive value of these instruments beyond prior arithmetic skills, general language skills, and control variables such as general cognitive skills and socio-economic status on students’ later arithmetic skills. We applied a multidimensional assessment model to measure arithmetic skills. Apart from replicating the prominent role of general language skills found in earlier studies, our results indicate a substantial, additional role of subject-specific language skills for the development of mathematics skills. These relations could be identified for knowledge of mathematical vocabulary, as well as for mathematical text comprehension. The results indicate that fostering subject-specific language skills already at the primary school level is not only one of many goals of mathematics instruction, but is a core prerequisite to supporting mathematical skill acquisition.

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