One common assumption about students learning English or who have challenges with the language is that they tend to underperform in mathematics chiefly because they are not yet proficient in English.
Several recent studies on English language learners and some focusing on students with "specific language impairments," or SLI, have continued to indicate this.
Yet University of Arizona researchers Mary Alt and Carole Beal said such findings can be limited and are initiating a new research effort to consider a broader range of factors.
"Problems with math often are not considered until children are much older, but I have a saying, 'Early intervention only works when it happens early,'" said Alt, an assistant professor of speech, language and hearing sciences.
Their project, "Using Technology to assess Numeracy Deficits in Children with Language Challenges," is unlike other projects in that they are considering students earlier in life, not merely at the middle and high school levels.
The effort earned Alt and Beal a $35,000 UA ADVANCE seed grant to support their one-year effort. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the UA's ADVANCE program supports faculty members conducting research across departments and disciplines.
They hope their findings will help improve what researchers and educators know about the connection between difficulties in picking up a language and understanding math. Also, they will investigate to what extent language is involved in grasping math-based concepts.
"This grant is perfect because it is a great project, but I don't think we could have started it without the funding," said Beal, a UA cognitive science professor.
For their current study, Alt and Beal plan to recruit 75 second and third-grade youth – 25 who are designated "language-impaired" or SLI, 25 ELL students and 25 students who are proficient in English.
The study could provide deeper insights into how students approach mathematics and what challenges English learners face in the subject.
Participants will be asked to complete tasks to evaluate how they process information using a computer-based model with touch screen technology that is adapted from an experimental technique Alt previously developed.
Alt and Beal also will try to determine how well children are able to remember information about quantity, how quickly they make inferences about numerical comparisons, how frequently they make mistakes, and what strategies they use.
Employing graduate and undergraduate researchers, they also will evaluate reaction time and how performance changes in the different groups when the tasks are more difficult.
Alt and Beal chose to focus on students who are ELL and classified as SLI because both face challenges in acquiring mathematical skills.
"It's not that all English language learners have cognitive problems. But if English learners are having trouble with math, it's easy to say that they are just beginning to learn English, so they'll catch up," Beal said.
While most will, not all do.
"I thought it was a little strange that we were seeing this math peak in ELL students," Beal added.
“We may be missing some children who need extra help with math learning because we assume that they will be fine once they learn English, but the real underlying problem may be more cognitive in nature,” she said.
The same principle applies to native English-speakers who have SLI. These children are defined by their problems using and understanding language as well as their peers and their math skills are often glossed over, Beal said.
She added: "I wondered what we could do if we caught these students earlier? If not, it's very hard to get them back on track once they have a history of failure in math, and to help them feel better about their math ability."
She and Alt said it is particularly important to consider these issues among ELL and SLI students now.
Recent data indicates that about 7 percent of all students have a SLI and U.S. Census data indicates that more than 30 percent of the population in Tucson alone speaks a language other than English at home.
"It's hard to know precisely what's different about their learning if we don't compare them to typical learners," said Alt, whose area of expertise is with SLI children, those who have language-based learning impairments.
Alt and Beal noted that language and math are interrelated, both relying on arbitrary systems of symbols to represent concepts.
This view takes into consideration that the problem may not be merely cognitive; the problem may conceptual, partially residing with challenges in interpreting the symbols themselves.
Consequently, their research also involves investigating how participants view and understand mathematical information that both involves and does not involve numerical symbols.
The two, then, will consider what educators can do to identify whether ELL or SLI students are at risk of becoming deficient in mathematics
"I'm thrilled that we received the grant. Very thankful," Alt said.
"It is a great opportunity and really exciting to have a formal mechanism to be able to collaborate in this way with Carole (Beal)," Alt added. "If we can use this information to create useful assessments, she is the perfect person to work with to think about next steps with teaching and tutoring."