Are students who struggle in math classes lacking in intelligence or missing some innate mathematical ability? Or is it possible that their struggles are “a result of the mismatch between the language of the student and the language of the school.” In the book Issues in Mathematics Teaching, Robyn Zevenbergen argues for the latter case. She starts by analyzing the effort to make math feel more relevant to students by creating word problems out of concrete situations from everyday life:

pg. 46 – “a commonly used example is the purchase of a car, the associated running costs, and the development of a savings plan through which the student will be able to purchase the car. The teachers or writers of the textbooks have attempted to embed the mathematics in a task with which the students may have some familiarity. However, within these problems there are also set parameters and assumptions built into the tasks. In the car-purchasing example, assumptions of deposits, purchasing schedules, maintenance schedules are based around particular economic and value systems that may or may not resonate with the students’ life circumstances. Eugene Maier (1991) argues that the difficulties students encounter with these types of problems is that they actually have very little to do with their real world; the problems are ‘school problems, coated with a thin veneer of ‘real world’ associations’ (Maier 1991:63).”

p. 46-47 – “There are of course other questions we could ask that might for example relate the price of different cars compared to the average wage of a school cleaner. (Paul Ernest discusses issues related to this in his chapter.) However, embedding mathematical tasks within word problems—and providing a context for a problem means it has to be embedded in a word problem—raises another set of issues for disadvantaged students. Within the literature examining performance on tests, Barry Cooper and Mairéad Dunne (1999) have found that working-class students perform equally as well as their middle-class peers on tasks that are decontextualised, but when tasks are embedded into contexts, the performance of working-class students declines… This will be startling for many educators who have assumed that working-class students are often more concrete thinkers and that the embedding of mathematics into concrete situations will enhance their understandings of the task.”

p. 47 – “The impact of Barry Cooper and Mairéad Dunne’s work is that it indicates the role of language in the mathematical tasks. Embedding school mathematics into some context demands a higher level of language saturation. For example, the equation 3+4=? is simple, but to put it into even a simple task such as ‘I bought 3 oranges and then went to another shop to buy another 4 oranges, how many did I have altogether’ requires substantially more reading and language-based learning… When the task is embedded in a word problem and other contextual cues are provided, then there is greater chance for misinterpretations—or perhaps we should say alternative interpretations—of the task, and hence greater chance of error for students not familiar with unpacking the meaning embedded in the tasks.”

pg. 48 – “for working-class students, and indeed other students for whom language is different from that used within the formal school setting, the chances of success are reduced. Rather than view the child as deficit in their learning of mathematics, it may be more productive to recognise the language differences and seek ways to redress these differences.”