Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

First Advisor

David E. Kirshner


The purpose of this study is to determine how a competent person translates a natural language sentence into an algebraic equation. A current theory of how translation occurs is espoused by a group of cognitive scientists who propose that the competent translator uses only conceptual strategies in the translation process. I propose and investigate an alternate theory that the translation skills of a competent student are based on a syntactic analysis and syntactic manipulation of the sentence. In most cases such direct, syntactic translation processes will suffice, but for a small minority of sentence types a decision must be made to abandon the syntactic processes and use conceptual strategies. The detailed syntactic model includes this decision process. The theory was tested by embedding the two alternate theories in classroom treatments using a repeated measures control group design. Subjects included five college algebra classes. Two groups were taught the translation process as outlined in the syntactic theory, whereas another group was taught the translation process stressing conceptual strategies. A pretest was given prior to instruction, a posttest one week after a three day treatment period, and a retention test twelve weeks after the posttest. Results indicated that the students who received the syntactic treatments had significantly better mean scores on translation tasks on the posttest and on the retention test than students who received either the conceptual treatment or no treatment. On the retention test, the conceptual treatment students' scores decreased so that they were no longer significantly different from those of the control group. These results suggest that the knowledge components stressed in the syntactic treatments more closely parallel the knowledge components of a competent translator. Thus, this study provides evidence that competence in translation of a natural language sentence into an algebraic equation involves a syntactic manipulation of the sentence, and that instruction that includes syntactic strategies has pedagogical merit.