How Teachers Can Help Their Dual Language Learners Develop Early Math Skills

I still remember the first time I became angry with a teacher. I was in first grade and just received my first “real” report card. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a glowing evaluation. The exact details have faded, but I remember being most disappointed by the math and science grades. Those were my favorite subjects. I was usually one of the first students to raise my hand and ask questions during those activities — and my responses were always met positively. I even made a firm decision to be a pediatrician when I grew up. So when my teacher said I needed more help with math and science, I was furious. I knew I understood the concepts, but as a bilingual Spanish-English speaker, I would simply get stuck on reading some the academic language. How could she not see that?

In later years, the school realized that it needed to adjust to serve the growing bilingual population in our community. This led to palpable changes in my classrooms. One teacher even shared basic Spanish medical terminology with me for a project. She said being able to speak both languages as a doctor would enable me to help more people — she saw my growing bilingualism as an asset. As both my Spanish and English language skills advanced, my grades rapidly improved. However, the embarrassment, low confidence, and fear of “inappropriately” speaking Spanish lingered.  As an adult, I often think back to those early years in school and what could have been different. Fortunately, I am not the only one pondering this question.

Optimal instructional techniques and classroom organization strategies for dual language learners (DLLs) are widely debated. Teachers and researchers alike are exploring which methods best leverage DLLs’ language abilities and boost their achievement.

recent study by researchers Rachel Garrett and Guanglei Hong tests the effects of grouping and time allocations in the classroom on the math performance of DLL kindergartners, as measured by direct assessment and teacher ratings. Specifically, the study explored the effects of access to small group instruction, different types of small group instruction, and  total math instructional time. Overall, their results suggest that teacher ratings of DLL students’ abilities are lower when they use “homogeneous math grouping” in their classrooms.

Previous research provides strong evidence that small group instruction can help students perform better particularly in math. When forming these groups, teachers generally use either homogeneous groups (similar-achievement levels together), heterogeneous groups (mixed-achievement levels together), or a combination of the two.

When Garrett and Hong analyzed differences in exposure to these types of grouping strategies. They found that both DLLs and their non-DLL peers were more often exposed to homogeneous groups than to heterogeneous level groups.

So: does teachers’ choice of grouping strategy affect students’ math performance? Perhaps. Garrett and Hong did not find any significant relationships between grouping strategies and direct math assessment results. However, their results do suggest a relationship between grouping strategy and teacher ratings of’ math performance. For instance, use of homogeneous groups reduces teachers’ ratings of their DLLs’ math performance by 35 percent.

The researchers also test if the amount of math instruction time affects DLLs’ achievement. Obviously, it would seem that more instruction should lead to better performance. Indeed, that’s generally what the study found. However, teachers’ ratings of math performance drop over 40 percent in classrooms using the homogeneous level strategy, regardless of the amount of instructional time, providing more evidence for a negative relationship between this grouping strategy and teachers’ ratings of student ability. Essentially, it is possible that teachers who place all DLLs in one group may cultivate a perception that the group is lower performing and consequently lower their expectations. This finding is particularly concerning given previous research that suggests low teacher expectations can lead to lower student academic performance.

Overall, the study’s results warn that homogeneous ability groups may have detrimental effects for teachers of DLLs and their students. By contrast, classrooms using heterogeneous ability groups with ample instructional time offer significant benefits to both young DLLs and their non-DLL peers. However, the researchers highlight that future research is needed, especially considering factors like level of English proficiency and baseline math proficiency, to fully understand these relationships.

While I did not follow my initial dream of becoming a pediatrician, there are thousands of young bilingual (and multilingual) students around the country who will. In order to boost these young DLLs’ math and science achievement, schools will need to experiment with and consider the myriad pedagogical strategies that can support their success.

This post is part of New America’s Dual Language Learners National Work Group. Click here for more information on this team’s work. To subscribe to the biweekly newsletter, click here, enter your contact information, and select “DLL National Work Group Newsletter.”

[Cross-posted at Ed Central]

Kristina Rodriguez

Kristina Rodriguez is a Summer 2016 intern with New America’s Education Policy program. Previously, Kristina conducted research and evaluation for preschool and afterschool programs in Chicago, IL. She is currently pursuing a master’s in public policy from Georgetown University and has a bachelor of science in human communication, concentrated in cognitive science, from Northwestern University.