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My Math Counts for so Much

Procedural and Conceptual Knowledge

Math is not the same the world over especially in terms of the procedural knowledge of math students are expected to learn. Conversely, the conceptual knowledge  of math students have learned will, most likely, be very similar to that they will learn in us classrooms. The most important aspect of teaching math to students from other countries is being able to recognize and identify places where differences in procedures or number systems may cause students difficulties. When we recognize and understand these specific differences we are in a better place to help students learn and progress in their mathematical knowledge and understanding.

World Number Systems

Here is a collection of World Number Systems. When we know the number system a student has been using prior to entering a US classroom we are in a better position to understand the difficulties a student might face. For example, many languages do not have the equivalent  of eleven and twelve making it difficult for some students to learn these two non-conforming number names. Some languages do not have the n phoneme at the end of a word making the teen numbers difficult to distinguish from the decade number names.

Using the WIDA Standards
        The WIDA CAN-DO Descriptors
        Sample WIDA ELP Language of Math video

Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol (SIOP)
        The 8 components of SIOP 

All Students are Individuals First   

It should be noted  that great variations exist in math education in other countries just as they do in the US.  When teaching math to a student from another country it is recommended that the Cultural Math Interview (CMI) be used when inconsistencies are observed in the student's performance during math class. A copy of the CMI can be obtained from Dr. Tim Whiteford at; twhiteford @smcvt.edu (remove space).

Cultural Math Identities

The information contained in the pages below was obtained from individual interviews with people from these countries using the CMI as well as independent research. The information should therefore be treated carefully as it may be unique to an individual, or possibly inaccurate or out of date, if obtained from a web source.






Saudi Arabia




South Korea

This is just the beginning

     Note: Some school districts block access to YouTube. It might be possible to get the block lifted for specific computers.

How to use this information

The information about the math students might bring with them from other countries is provided here as a resource for teachers who may have such a student in her/his classroom. It is recommended that the information contained in the pages above be referred to by the teacher a) briefly when the student first enters the class and b) more extensively if the student appears to show particular difficulty learning a math concept or skill. In situations where the student's difficulties appear enigmatic it is recommended  that the CMI be administered as a means of providing a more complete picture of the students mathematical knowledge, skills, and understanding.

My Math Counts Too
A resource for teaching mathematics to students from other countries


My Math Counts Too

When ELL Students enter US classrooms they not only have to learn English they also will be required and expected to learn all academic subjects including mathematics. To help them construct meaningful understanding of mathematical concepts as well as the many mathematical symbols and procedures used in American math it is important for us to know and understand the math they bring with them, the math they have already learned which will form the basis of their future learning. 

Teaching from a Constructivist Perspective  

To understand the way ELL students think mathematically it is important to know the nature of the math they might have learned prior to entering the US classroom.

 Mathematics differs internationally in many ways. Many different countries have different numbering systems based on different bases; the procedures used when doing arithmetic can differ significantly from those taught in American schools and the math concepts that form the basis of the school curriculum can be different from those American students are expected to learn and understand.  The language they use when constructing mathematical meaning or completing computational procedures my also be unique to the culture where they were learned. For example, we know that students tend to do mental math in their first language. 

Just as in US classrooms, students may have experienced a wide variety of math teaching techniques as well as math concepts and procedures so care must be taken when making generalizations about a particular students mathematical experiences. While such generalizations and assumptions based on cultural norms or expectations are a necessary part of the instructional process it is recommended that students new to US classrooms be given the Cultural Math Interview (CMI)   to ascertain the exact nature of their individual math thinking. This is most effectively done with the student accompanied by her/his family so that as complete a picture as possible is obtained about the students mathematical knowledge, understanding and cultural math background. The significant numbers in a culture, the numbers that are important to individuals can also differ from culture to culture. For example, 12 is an important number in western cultures while 50 is a significant number in the US culture. Such culturally derived numbers can have a powerful influence on the way individuals construct a quantitatively literate understanding of their lives. 

Diversity of Experience

Students coming to the US are likely to have had a great variety of mathematics-related  educational  experiences.  Some students may have had no formal schooling or education while others may have been subjected to a variety of educational systems due to their moving from one country to another. Still others may have stayed in one school. 

Others variations in experience may include the language of instruction. For example, some students were found to have been taught in English even though this was not the primary language of their country of origin. The effects of nineteenth century colonialization are still felt through the the ubiquitous use of the words "borrow" and "carry" in subtraction and addition algorithms.  Many students may also speak more than one language such as those from Bosnia who might speak Russian as well as Bosnian and English.

Useful Resources;

For more information contact Dr. Tim Whiteford at:
Last updated April 3, 2011
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