Supporting English Learners’ Number Sense Abilities in Kindergarten

Blog Post
March 13, 2019

As a student learning the English language, I was told by teachers that mathematics should be easier to understand than other subjects, like reading and writing, because numbers are “universal.” However, this assumption overlooked one important fact: the way I learned to write a division equation was different than the way it was introduced to me in U.S. classrooms.

Nonetheless, because I had strong number sense abilities, I was able to solve division problems even though the equations looked different. Number sense is the ability to understand numbers and apply this understanding in various ways, such as counting numbers sequentially or in different orders and solving basic number operations (e.g., addition, division, etc). When students have poor number sense skills, it makes it hard for them to understand more complex mathematical concepts.

Research has demonstrated that number sense development in the early years is crucial for students’ educational success in mathematics. However, language skills are equally important given the fact that students are introduced to mathematical concepts through language and are expected to use specific vocabulary in English to explain their mathematical thinking. English learners (ELs) require additional scaffolds and intentional vocabulary instruction to help facilitate their learning of mathematical content.

Given these considerations, a new study (paywall) examines the effects of an intervention to support kindergarten students learning English and who are experiencing difficulties in mathematics. Specifically, the study explored the ROOTS mathematics intervention program, an explicit instructional framework developed by researchers at the University of Oregon that consists of 50 lessons that aim to develop kindergarten students’ number sense abilities.

In this randomized study, the participating ELs were not on track to meet grade level expectations in mathematics and had varying levels of English proficiency. Students who received the intervention participated in small groups of 4-5 students for 20 minutes per day, five days per week, and for about 10 weeks. The first 25 lessons focused on counting and number relationships and the final 25 lessons focused on place value.

The study found that the ROOTS program was effective and led to gains in participating students’ mathematical learning. However, differences were observed across ELs based on their level of English proficiency. Specifically, ELs with lower levels of English proficiency showed greater gains than ELs who were more proficient in English. The authors suggest that the explicit vocabulary instruction in the ROOTS lessons provides an added boost for ELs with lower levels of English proficiency.

Taken together, this research provides suggestive evidence that ELs benefit from interventions that provide teachers with structured steps and explicit strategies for building early number sense abilities. For instance, teachers can guide ELs in an exploration of counting through the use of manipulatives (e.g., blocks and small toys) and provide them with opportunities to increase their language skills in English by talking with their peers about what they are learning.

And while the findings lend support for providing ELs with targeted small group interventions focused on enhancing early number sense abilities, not all schools may be able to implement systematic mathematics interventions like those provided by the ROOTS program.

So what can these schools do?

One strategy is to elevate and acknowledge the role that ELs’ native languages play in their learning. As a recent National Academies consensus report on English learners and Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) states, students’ use of their native language in mathematics serves as “a resource for communicating mathematical reasoning, making sense of mathematical meanings, and learning with understanding.” To that end, teachers can encourage students to use their native language to explain their thinking process about mathematics and share their prior knowledge of concepts that they already have. These actions serve to acknowledge ELs’ prior learning and elevate the experiences that they bring to the classroom. At the same time, schools and districts can invest in professional learning so that all teachers regardless of content area are able to see themselves as teachers of language.

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English Learners