Miss, I don’t understand this…

The other day, I taught an eighth grade math class as a guest teacher (or substitute teacher, if you prefer that term). Ninety percent of the students in the class spoke a language other than English, so a paraeducator was in the class with us. Their assignment for the day was to complete a pre-test on adding integers. They could not use calculators to complete the assignment. When I reviewed the plans prior to their arrival, I thought, “Oh, this will be so easy that I need a filler activity.” I was wrong.

Not five minutes after the class started the assignment, I heard a chorus of “Miss, I don’t understand this…” and the paraeducator heard, “Señora, no lo entiendo…” Well, I believe that is what she heard, but they were speaking so fast that it was hard for me to understand them because my Spanish skills are very weak. As Señora ran around the room trying to help the students, I went up and down the aisles trying to help also. Then I went to the board and tried to explain the concept using a number line. Since I am an English teacher and not a math teacher, I was relying on my own prior learning to help the students. Some of them then understood, but others kept saying, “A negative plus a negative is a positive, Miss! That’s what she [the regular teacher] told us.” I told them that is true when multiplying, but not when adding. Since the students did not know me, a few of them did not trust my reasoning. Two or three students became very frustrated and almost gave up. I had to work with them to calm them down. One student picked up a calculator off a table in the front of the room. I told him to put it down, reminding him of the teacher’s rule against using calculators. For a moment, he ignored me. I stood there, with my hand out, and waited for him to comply. After he verified his independent calculation using the calculator, he handed it back to me and returned to his seat.

By the end of the class, I could tell that those who were confused in the beginning were still confused. In retrospect, I realize that Stephen Krashen, a language acquisition expert, would have been very helpful here. I wish I had remembered his comprehensible input hypothesis. According to a paper that he delivered in 2004, “The Comprehension Hypothesis states that we acquire language when we understand messages, when we understand what people tell us and when we understand what we read” (Krashen, 2004). I wish I had gone to the book, reviewed the lesson related to the pre-test, and prepared a mini-lesson that broke down the concept into smaller and comprehensible parts. (I know I would have appreciated that as a math student and I am fluent in the English language. That goes to show that if the textbook does not explain things well, it is incumbent upon the teacher to modify the lesson accordingly.) As I imagine what these students were feeling, “overwhelmed” and “confused” come to mind immediately. I wish I had done a better job. Although the teacher wanted them to complete the pre-test without assistance, it was clear that most of the students in the room were lost, whether they were native English speakers or not. I feel that I failed them and will not make that mistake again. I am a reflective teacher. I want to help students understand. I will do whatever I can to help them and can only be successful if I learn from my mistakes.

I want to thank my students-for-the-day for teaching me a very valuable lesson and reminding me of Krashen’s Comprehension Hypothesis. I also want to thank Dr. Michael Genzuk and Dr. Monica Neshyba of USC for introducing me to this very valuable concept.


Krashen, S. (2004). Applying the Comprehension Hypothesis: Some Suggestions. Stephen D Krashen. Retrieved October 2, 2011, from http://www.sdkrashen.com/articles/eta_paper/index.html



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