UNM study to look into English language learners’ struggles with math

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – The outcome of a new study being conducted by a local researcher at UNM could eventually help teachers better instruct students who struggle with math – specifically, those students who learned English as a second language.

It is no secret that when it comes to education, New Mexico is struggling to keep up, especially in STEM-related subjects.

“New Mexico doesn’t necessarily get high scores in the areas of mathematics and that sort of thing,” said UNM research professor Lee Swanson, who added that New Mexico is not alone in that.

Swanson says issues with math and problem-solving are more predominate in students who learned another language first.

“The achievement gap keeps getting bigger and bigger between them and children who are not English language learners,” he said.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, over the last decade, the number of English learner students grew by 300,000 nationwide. Roughly 14 percent of New Mexico students are English language learners.

“I think in our society if you do poorly in math and science, the technological society isn’t just unique to New Mexico, you’re going to have problems,” he said.

A team of researchers at UNM, including Swanson, will follow second and third-grade students in New Mexico and California for three years.

That is students whose first language is Spanish.

Swanson says his study is unique in that it looks beyond just math.

“You can’t look at math separate from reading or vocabulary or memory processing you just can’t separate those out,” Swanson said,

Researchers will dig into student’s abilities not just in math but grammar and vocabulary both in English and Spanish and try to understand the student’s cognitive processing.

“It’s not just because of instruction, what else is happening between the interaction of the two language systems?” he asked.

The hope is to find ways for teachers to better help their ‘ELL’ students.

“So I think we’re going to be able to inform the schools about what we’re finding and they can make adjustments in their curriculum,” Swanson explained.

Swanson has a $2.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

Right now researchers are in the process of selecting the students for the study.

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