It’s Time to Put Early Math on Everyone’s Radar, Especially for Dual Language Learners

Most parents understand early literacy is important. Data show they are already doing the basics to support literacy, like reading to children regularly. Yet new research suggests early math understanding is even more important for later educational and life success than early literacy. 

To get young children where we hope them to go—especially young children in families where at least one parent speaks a language other than English at home—it’s time to create as big a cultural push on the importance of family math for young children as we have on family literacy. So argues a new report from Bellwether Education Partners, “Language Counts: Supporting Early Math Development for Dual Language Learners.”

Fear of math is very common among adults—often because of negative school experiences with math. “Given the prevalence of math anxiety, math can just feel a lot less accessible for a lot of groups,” said report co-author Brandon Lewis. But when parents reach out to other parents, their anxiety is replaced with confidence. The report describes two case studies where trained parent ambassadors reached out to other parents in their communities through door-to-door campaigns and family math nights.

These campaigns brought trusted ambassadors in close contact with parents, gave them kits of materials to use in games that build math skills and showed them how math is already embedded in many songs and lullabies for children. Parents built confidence in their ability to teach math to their children and families enjoyed and benefited from free, hands-on resources. At times, those materials were more helpful than school-based resources. “My son was learning about counting and grouping by 10 and he was struggling. I used the blocks from Mighty Math to play with my son and have him create groups of 10 … which was more useful than what he was doing in school.”

While parents can build community and learn to use daily activities as a springboard for math learning, early educators can be taught to pay more thoughtful attention to the language they use to talk about math ideas like observing patterns and classifying objects into categories. Bellwether offers them specific tips for building early math skills.

The most fundamental shift for educators is to see multilingualism as an asset to learning, not a deficit in English language. Without the language they need to express their understanding of spatial relationships, categories and other math ideas, young learners of multiple languages can be underestimated by monolingual teachers. This sets them up for a lifelong, unjust failure to reach their full potential as learners. 

There are ways to capitalize on multilingualism that seem like no-brainers in theory, yet can be difficult to realize in practice. One is to make sure classroom materials are available to children in both English and their home languages. Ideally, when determining how well dual-language learners have mastered math concepts, teachers would assess their knowledge in both languages. “You might get one concept more clearly in Spanish and another in English,” noted report co-author Melissa Steel King. “It’s beneficial to do the assessment in both languages to assess what they really do know.” It is also necessary to ensure parents receive information about their child’s progress and what is happening in school in the language with which they are most comfortable. 

Bellwether spoke with Ileana Ortiz, a parent advocate with EdNavigator in New Orleans, about why this matters.

Sometimes when I’m talking to teachers and schools about offering translated materials, it sounds like I’m asking for something extra. But it’s not something extra. … Monolingual families get information about their [children] and they can read it in their language. I remind my parents that what they are asking for is the bare minimum.

While teacher preparation and professional development can help current educators start making these shifts, the report also urges policymakers to make fundamental efforts to recruit more bilingual educators and change licensing requirements to ensure teachers of young dual-language learners enter the profession specifically trained to meet their needs.

We have much more to learn here, both about how best to support young children in building their foundational math skills and how to ensure that parents, early care and primary teachers and the general public are as comfortable with helping kids learn basic math skills as they are in building a foundation for reading.

And there’s an urgent need right now for speedy research on how distance learning in early math can be delivered most effectively. We need to try strategies quickly, analyze what’s working and what’s not, then tweak and try again in rapid cycles of development. “We need to understand what teachers can do to improve math readiness for dual language students,” said King.

Ultimately, the co-authors recommend developing public campaigns to heighten awareness of the importance of early math, expanding events like family math night and, most of all, encouraging educators and policy makers to listen carefully to dual-language families and make the effort to learn about their needs and perspectives.

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