115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

High Quality Mathematics Instruction in Bilingual Classrooms

Anna-Lena Stift, University of California, Riverside

This paper reviews literature on bilingual mathematics education and classroom discourse using two California middle school mathematics teachers as an example. The study addresses the achievement gap between white students and students of Hispanic origin struggling with English, suggesting the need for professional development programs in bilingual classrooms.


This paper uses theory and findings from prior research in bilingual mathematics education to describe how teachers make use of the Spanish language in classrooms with sizeable populations of English language learners (ELL) with Hispanic origin. Two California middle school mathematics teachers serve as an example showing how they juggle ELL and the Common Core Standards in a 6th grade middle school classroom.

In November 2016 California voters accepted Proposition 58 which brought back bilingual education to California’s K-12 education. Many educators, students, and parents perceive this new policy as a chance for immigrant children to improve not only their English language skills, but also their content knowledge in subjects such as Mathematics, leading to access to higher education. Looking at the current results from California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (California Department of Education, 2016), a wide achievement gap and inequality becomes obvious – in 2016 77% of the 6th graders of Hispanic origin did not meet the math standards. Meanwhile among the white students, approximately half of the test takers scored below Level 3 (meet the standards). In this paper I argue that Mathematics instruction requires as much consideration of language use or discourse as other subjects, such as Language Arts or Science. Therefore, a teachers’ pedagogy has to address a student’s linguistic background.

Most of the prior research (for instance Celedón-Pattichis, 2008; Khisty, 1995; Moschkovic, 1999; Gonzales, 2012) is focused on elementary or high school level and studies topics such as the importance of discourse between teachers and students in bilingual classrooms, or the benefits of students’ code-switching (using both languages;). However, little research has been done on middle school level focused on teaching mathematics, and high quality classroom discourse to ELL with Hispanic origin in particular. This paper serves as one step towards filling this gap.

Based on the findings of other scholars and Vygotsky’s (1978 & 1979) sociocultural perspective which emphasizes the importance of social interaction with knowledgeable others, semi-structured interviews were conducted: As part of a larger research project on improving middle school mathematics classroom instruction, teachers in three school districts in Southern California were recruited as interview partners. In one middle school the Hispanic population with English language deficiencies are extraordinarily high, therefore, two of their 6th grade mathematics teachers have been chosen for semi-structured qualitative interviews. The goal was to learn how the particular California teachers make use of the Spanish language in their classroom. In order to increase validity and gain additional insight and understanding, the data collection was expanded with classroom observations (site visits).

As already indicated, more qualitative research on middle school mathematics in bilingual classrooms is necessary to fill gaps in existing knowledge, reveal shortcomings in teacher pedagogy and suggest directions for future inquiries. Based on the results of good research, school districts or universities can develop targeted professional development programs which train teachers, improve their practice and, as a result, reduce inequality.