For a limited time, parents can get a 90 day FREE trial of DreamBox so children can learn at home. Simply sign up by April 30th. Learn more

Providing quality math education for Latino ELLs: Spanish? English only? or a combination?

I was pleased that the Obama administration released guidelines at the beginning of the year to highlight the civil rights of students learning English as a second language, or English Language Learners (ELLs).  It reminded educators that our public schools must guarantee targeted help and provide a high-quality public education for all ELLS—including the 4.4 million students who speak Spanish as their home language— under federal law.

One way to measure of how we are supporting Latino ELLs is by reviewing mathematics achievement. While data specific to Spanish-speaking ELLs is not readily available, we can identify trends by looking at national data for both ELLs and Latino math students.  National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) math data tracked from the 1990s through 2013 shows that while scores have improved for both groups, achievement gaps have remained relatively unchanged compared to the scores non-ELL and Caucasian peers.  Some of these gaps can be as significant as four grades.

When you consider the number of Latino students learning in our schools now, and their growing numbers—a 2014 ChildTrends report projects that by 2050, one third of the total U.S. child population will be Latino—there is cause for concern for these learners and for us as a nation. How can we come provide the high-quality education required under federal law, and the opportunity that derives from it? Is it better to take the approach that English-only instruction is the better pathway to learning progress, or to teach Latino ELLs in their primary language? Given the ongoing achievement gap, we need to find a better way to raise achievement for the millions of primary and secondary math students in our country who are Spanish-speakers.

Immigrant and bilingual experts contend that students should have the ability to access their primary language to learn English, and there is research that backs up this position.  Advocates of English-immersion claim the contrary is true and maintain that using the child's home-language prolongs the acquisition process. The logic that follows is that an intensive English-only curriculum is the fastest path to proficiency. On the basis of this notion, several states have barred bilingual education.

We have more research now that shows students who develop two or three languages to a high level have certain cognitive advantages and they do as well or better than their peers in English-only programs. The advantages of bilingualism seem to serve both learners and society as a whole.

This is the thinking behind two-way or dual immersion instruction, which integrates native English speakers and Spanish speakers for all or most of the day, with the goal of promoting academic achievement, first- and second-language development, and cross-cultural understanding for all students. In these programs, language learning takes place primarily through content instruction, with academic subjects taught to all students through both English and the non-English language. As students and teachers work together to perform academic tasks, student's language abilities are developed along with their knowledge of content area subject matter, benefitting both minority and majority language students.

Based on research and on-the-ground experience of classroom teachers, including our own curriculum team at DreamBox Learning, we now provide our entire math curriculum in both English and Spanish with every subscription, so Spanish-speaking students can take advantage of this powerful and enabling technology and learn in the language that works best for them.  

Not a problem. Rather, an opportunity for all.

Beyond the legal imperatives we also have a moral imperative to consider. The Pew Research Center has found that some 90 percent of Americans believe that we should do everything we can to ensure equality of opportunity. It's a deeply-held American value that all of us, particularly young people—regardless of their current circumstance, home language, or zip code—should have the chance to learn and achieve. We need to provide the appropriate support for our Latino students, particularly in core subjects like math that lead to higher engagement, empowerment, and confidence throughout the learning process.  It is self-confidence that helps students become life-long learners who can successfully meet their future. That is the foundation for better jobs and better futures for our Latino students.

I'm excited about what we can do right now to improve opportunities to leverage technology, and thrilled to be part of a featured panel at the SXSWedu conference on March 10, EdTech for Educational Inclusion. We'll be considering inequalities in the education system, the use of technology by educators to support and empower students from diverse backgrounds, ways we can cultivate confidence in students who could be left behind, and how we can prepare to meet the challenges of globalization. I hope you can join me and my fellow panelists for this important discussion, and be part of the conversation at #SXSWedtech.

If you're passionate about helping Spanish speaking ELL students succeed in math, download our whitepaper, Six strategies to reach, teach and close math gaps for Latino students and ELLs in elementary and middle school

Jessie Woolley-Wilson