Mediating mathematical meaning through discourse: An investigation of discursive practices of middle grades mathematics teachers

Date of Completion

January 2004


The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics has responded to calls for reform of mathematics education by developing and promoting standards that focus on content and process, such as problem solving, reasoning, and communication. Discourse has been an integral part of the reform documents over the past two decades. Although meaningful discourse can enhance learning, research has revealed that the quality and type of talk are critical. Additionally, the role of the teacher in the orchestration of discourse has been identified to be not only essential, but also underestimated. ^ The purpose of this study was to develop a model of discursive practices in middle grades mathematics classes that specifically focused on how types of talk and verbal assessment interact to mediate mathematical meaning within whole group instruction. To accomplish this, grounded theory methodology, sociolinguistic strategies, and multiple-case study design were employed. The participants were a purposive sample of seven middle grades mathematics teachers (grades 4–8), identified as having characteristics indicative of expertise. Data were collected via semi-structured pre- and post-observation interviews and classroom observations. These were documented using field notes, classroom artifacts, audio and video recordings, and transcriptions. Transcripts of mathematics lessons were coded using sociolinguistic strategies that built on a social constructivist framework. Along with utilizing approaches reported in the research literature, additional analytical tools and techniques were developed and employed by the researcher. ^ The central result of the research was the development of a model to explain how middle grades mathematics teachers use language to mediate mathematical meaning. Additionally, the model of discourse served as a basis for the examination of the relationships of the types of talk and assessment; it further focused on and indicated tendencies toward either dialogic (generating meaning) or univocal (transmission of meaning). Finally, the research demonstrated that the model of discourse, when combined with multi-level analysis, could be used to build models of teaching. This research provides means to begin to make sense of the nature and role of discourse within middle grades mathematics classes and, ultimately, to explore how students come to understand and make meaning of mathematics. ^