Effects of Linguistic Complexity and Math Difficulty on Word Problem Solving by English Learners

Otilia C. Barbu, Carole R. Beal


Prior research suggests that linguistic complexity may impede mathematics word problem solving by English Learners, but results have been inconsistent. The present study employed an experimental design to investigate the effects of linguistic complexity and mathematics difficulty on word problem solving by middle school English Learners.  Results were consistent with predictions from Cognitive Load Theory: Performance was poorer for word problems written in more complex language compared to the same problems in easier text, and the weakest performance was observed for problems that were both linguistically and mathematically challenging. A Confirmatory Factor Analysis suggested a model including a latent factor, hypothesized to be working memory, provided a good fit to the data.  Additionally, linguistic complexity had a significant influence on students’ perceptions of the mathematical difficulty of the problems.  The results are consistent with recent suggestions that English Learners’ lower performance in math reflects the additional cognitive demands associated with text comprehension.

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.5296/ije.v2i2.508

Copyright (c) 2010 Otilia C. Barbu, Carole R. Beal

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International Journal of Education ISSN 1948-5476

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