LEP Students and
by: Erin White
Math is not a universal language
Assessments commonly underestimate their
Opportunity to learn math affects future
Conclusions and Teacher Recommendations
Math is not a universal language.
Different cultures view and teach mathematics in many different
ways. Vygotsky states in his sociocultural theory that “the cognitive
development of a child is affected by his/her culture…” (Berk, 1993).
For example: American parents tend to blame the schools
and/or lack of ability for a child’s low performance in math,
while Japanese counterparts place emphasis on lack of effort
Math vocabulary may not have appropriate transference in their
native language. An LEP student has to add new meaning to the
word “table” (they think furniture), when learning math
(Olivares, 1996). This is common with story problems.
Syntax may be different. The comma and decimal point are used in
the opposite way in Europe and some South American countries
than they are used in the U.S. (1.223,04 instead of 1,223.04)
In a research study done by Edward DeAvila in the early
’90’s it concluded that language proficiency was the most
important factor in mathematics achievement, even more
influential than socioeconomic status.
Further research proved this true even more with the
significant difference revealed in standardized test
scores in math calculations vs. math problem solving
over a 3 year study in Hawaii. (Abedi, Chin-Chance, &
Gronna, 2000) The LEP participants in this study
consistently scored much higher in calculations than
problem solving, where they relied on their English
language proficiency to understand what the problem
was asking them to do.
Assessments commonly underestimate LEP
students mathematical understanding
The significantly large discrepancy between LEPs’ high calculation
scores and low problem solving scores reveals that perhaps they
have a much higher understanding of math than the scores reveal,
but the language barrier prevents them from excelling when
“Academic English skills” are needed. (Abedi, Chin-Chance, &
Gronna, 2000) “To succeed in the mainstream classroom, LEP
students must learn both English communication and academic
skills (Carey, Secada, & Schucher, 1990)
In a 2000 qualitative study, research showed that the majority of
teachers in the study had lower achieving predictions for their LEP
students, gave them approximately 2 seconds wait time after
questioning, and recommended they be placed in low level math
courses due to the teachers lack of knowledge of the LEP students’
level of math understanding. (Rhine, 2000)
Opportunity to learn math affects
In a 1999 Quantitative study involving participants from
an urban southern California school district results
showed that immigrant LEP students were enrolled in
the low-level math courses the majority of the time. It
also showed that native born LEP students weren’t too
far behind them. On the other hand, it revealed that
English proficient immigrants (mainly form Japan or
China) were commonly enrolled in honors courses
(Wang, 1999). The point to be made here is that
teachers, counselors, and others may be stifling certain
LEP students and their future career success by “doing
them a favor” and putting them in easier courses. Many
LEP students are missing the “opportunity to learn” and
advance due to course placement.
More teacher training in understanding the complexities and challenges for
students learning English as a new/second language should be necessary.
Home-school outreach programs should be funded and encouraged to get
LEP families involved in their child’s education.
A translator or similar aid could help assess a student’s understanding of
math more accurately, possibly leading to less placement in “low-level” math
An in-service that educates counselors, administrators, and teachers about
the “opportunity to learn” affect could change their tendency to automatically
place LEP students in “low level” courses in all subject areas. This could
open more doors for LEP students, their future careers, and their future
contributions to our society.
More emphasis needs to be placed on LEP students learning “academic
English” in addition to “English communication skills”. If families are willing
to help, perhaps a grant could help fund helpful handbooks for parents and
tutors could be made available to support the acquisition of “academic
Increase your own knowledge of your students’ culture.
Simplify your language, not the content!
Demonstrate with visuals and audiovisuals (manipulatives, pictures,
DVDs, CDs, etc.)
Allow LEP students to express themselves in their native tongue,
then translate later with translator, etc.- this will allow them to
express their math thinking more freely and get in touch with their
Encourage LEP students to speak and share thoughts about how
they are solving math problems with others who speak their native
language as well as pairing them with English speaking students.
Increase wait time.
Make math meaningful to them by bringing in their culture and their
families. They could formulate their own story problems.
Make use of free publications and free translation websites. (see