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Language Counts: Supporting Early Math Development for Dual Language Learners

Brandon Lewis
Melissa Steel King
Jennifer O’Neal Schiess
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Around the country, advocates for education equity are paying increased attention to the critical importance of early math skills. Driven by research showing that foundational math knowledge is even more predictive of later school success than literacy, a growing movement is focused on promoting young children’s math skills in both early care settings and at home.

In order to improve equity in early math learning for all students, it is essential for this movement to understand and address the particular needs of dual language learners (DLLs). DLLs, children under the age of 8 with at least one parent who speaks a language other than English at home, represent a large and growing percentage of preschoolers and elementary students in the United States. Faced with systemic inequities and an education system designed for monolingual students, disparities in early math achievement for DLLs are evident as early as kindergarten and persist throughout a student’s academic career and beyond.

In “Language Counts: Supporting Early Math Development for Dual Language Learners,” we explore the current state of knowledge about DLLs’ math achievement and effective strategies for promoting their early math learning. We examine research and practice to identify promising practices for supporting students in early childhood and early elementary school settings, and, importantly, for engaging families of DLL students to provide additional support at home.

Existing research and experts agree that an important principle for educators of DLLs, particularly for English-dominant providers, is to treat the child’s home culture and emerging bilingualism as assets and resources, rather than as deficits. In the classroom, this includes investing time to understand how math language and knowledge are already used in the home, and creating opportunities for DLLs to use play to practice and demonstrate math skills in both languages. Educators should also work with parents to highlight ways in which they already use math language (for example, about shapes, measurement, sorting, and spatial relationships) in daily activities.

To summarize the strategies in the report specifically for childcare providers who work with dual language learners, we’ve created this two-pager:

The report concludes with recommendations, summarized below. Particularly in light of tightening budgets and growing inequities as a result of the global pandemic, it is critical to think strategically about how educators, advocates, policymakers, researchers, and philanthropists can ensure that DLLs have the math foundation they need to succeed in school and beyond.

Recommendations for Policymakers and Advocates

  • Engage and listen to DLL families to better understand their needs.
  • Include attention to the specific needs of DLLs in COVID-19-related funding and policies.
  • Include DLL-related reporting and capacity-building in QRIS systems.
  • Support development of grow-your-own bilingual educator certification pathways.
  • Establish and sustain funding for educators to learn best practices while working with DLL students.
  • Advocate for and establish educator certification requirements to include training related to DLLs.

Recommendations for Early Care Providers, State and District Education Leaders, Community-Based Organizations, and Philanthropic Partners

  • Raise awareness about the importance of early math through strategies like family math nights.
  • Develop a public campaign around early math targeted to DLL families.
  • Develop and pilot training tools related to DLL instruction and family engagement.
  • Invest in community organizing efforts for families of DLLs around education equity.
  • Support the development of a professional learning community for preparation program providers interested in providing training on educating DLLs.

Recommendations for Institutions of Higher Education, Philanthropic Organizations, and Nonprofits

  • Conduct rapid-cycle research on effective distance learning strategies for DLL families in the COVID-19 era.
  • Conduct effectiveness research on specific early math instructional strategies for DLLs.
  • Refine training tools for DLL instruction and family engagement, based on ongoing research.

Download the full report here or read it in the viewer below, or view the two-pager here.