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Critical Issue: Mastering the Mosaic—Framing Impact Factors to Aid Limited-English-Proficient Students in Mathematics and Science

This Critical Issue was researched and written by Gilbert Valdez, Ph.D., Deputy Director of North Central Regional Educational Laboratory and Director of the Midwest Consortium for Mathematics and Science Education; and by Asta Svedkauskaite, a graduate student of Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages at Northern Illinois University. Mary McNabb, Ph.D., research scientist, University of Denver, also contributed to this issue.

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ISSUE: As immigrant school enrollment increases, educators are paying close attention to helping limited English proficient students succeed. However, attempts to accommodate LEP students within today's culturally and linguistically enriched classrooms have not always been successful because the most immediate factors influencing their success in mathematics and science, which common belief holds require acquisition of their own language, have either been overlooked or not fully acknowledged.

Underscoring the importance of this issue, educators and policymakers have been confronted with an additional challenge—dropping national scores. The Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) reports that the relative standing of United States students among their international peers fell as they progressed from the 4th grade in 1995 to the 8th grade in 1999 (National Science Foundation, 2001).

Faced with the need to improve scores, as well as craft learning for increasing numbers of LEP students, mastering the LEP mosaic through the lens of mathematics and science offers a focused approach to help educators to frame solutions. Stepping back to appreciate the canvas of interwoven influences may help educators narrow in on effective approaches.

This Critical Issue looks first at instructional models, the mosaic's background. It then focuses the lens of mathematics and science language itself. It blends diverse and vibrant student factors that color the mosaic's unique design. It examines the underlying, cohesive strength of school factors that support it. Finally, it suggests an emerging pattern of influences—a pattern that, ultimately, relies on the clear-eyed efficiencies of assessment—to help LEP students become successful learners of mathematics and science.

OVERVIEW: Educators need to examine the mosaic of factors that influence LEP student success, particularly through the lens of mathematics and science, with their emphasis on learning to talk a language specific to instruction. Those factors comprise programmatic instructional models such as English Immersion or Cognitive Academic Language Learning Approach; the language of the subjects themselves; student factors such as family backgrounds, culture, and linguistics; and school factors including teacher quality, curriculum, instruction, technology, and assessment. Addressing a single influence without consideration of its context lacks the comprehensive approach necessary to address the complex needs of LEP students. Examining interrelationships among such factors offers a framework on which valid solutions can be developed. Mastering the mosaic is the process of comprehending those influences coherently, a need accelerated by the increasing number of LEP students.

Photograph of Gil Valdez. LEP students uniquely enrich their classrooms, according to Gil Valdez, Ph.D., Deputy Director, NCREL, and Director of the North Central Eisenhower Mathematics and Science Consortium.
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As various statistical data and analyses demonstrate, the nonEnglish-speaking immigrant population in America is growing dramatically. During the 1990s, 13.3 million immigrants crossed the U.S. border, bringing with them their experiences, knowledge, customs, traditions, and languages (, 2001). According to preliminary Census Survey 2000 estimates, "Nearly one-fifth of America's school-age children [or 18 percent of 5- to 17-year-olds] now speak a language other than English at home," while receiving most of their formal education in English (How newcomers are changing U.S., 2001). Approximately one half of the country's foreign-born population in 1997 comprised immigrants from Latin America (U.S. Census Bureau, 2000). Overall, the immigrant population has been growing to the point where it's becoming "a greater part of the total school enrollment" (Mac?s, 1998).

The battle over which way is the most effective way to teach immigrants—bilingual education, immersion, English as a Second Language, or some middle ground—has been of critical concern to educators and policymakers during the last decade (How newcomers are changing U.S., 2001; Smith, 1995).

In recent years, battles over the best way to teach LEP students—bilingual versus English-only—have been heated and political. A review of research that focuses on efforts to assist nonnative English speakers become more successful students reveals that issues and results are too complex for simple solutions. A broader look at a myriad of influences is required.

Photograph of Gil Valdez. Gil Valdez, Ph.D., Deputy Director, NCREL, and Director of the North Central Eisenhower Mathematics and Science Consortium, suggests that genuine respect for language diversity is pivotal to LEP student success.
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Without accounting for the critical issue of quality instruction, debates have often focused solely on issues of delivery systems (e.g., arguments such as bilingual versus sheltered instruction versus content-based). In fact, LEP students are as diverse as the general population of most large schools, and the challenges they face vary significantly due to such diversity (Ruiz-de-Velasco et al., 2000). Some LEP students have excellent academic backgrounds and come from homes where learning is encouraged and supported. Other second language students are being introduced into a new culture, new value structure, and, for some, their first experience with formal education. For this group of students, language learning is only one of many factors they encounter in their efforts to succeed.

Any effort to educate all LEP students in exactly the same way is as unfair to them as are efforts to prescribe one learning solution for all English-speaking students. Solutions that don't consider the quality of the curriculum, instruction, and assessment, as well as the critical component of teacher attitude and preparation, will likely have disappointing results. A number of studies on nonEnglish speakers (Secada & Carey, 1990; Moschkovich, 2000; GutiťGrez, in press; Secada, 2001; Bernhardt et al., 1996; Buck; 2000) have focused on ways to specifically improve the teaching of mathematics and science to language-minority students. Mounting research shows that there are more factors beyond the language barrier that play a role in LEP students' thinking process as well as their development of mathematics and science literacy and proficiency.

Further complicating the challenge of helping LEP students learn mathematics and science is the evolution of the subjects themselves. For example, the focus on scientific and mathematical knowledge has evolved into what Kilpatrick, Swafford, & Findell (2001) called five "strands of proficiency," (p.116) of which one is "productive disposition—habitual inclination to see mathematics as sensible, useful, and worthwhile, coupled with a belief in diligence and one's own efficacy."

In fact, there is no one best solution to answer this critical concern of teaching LEP students mathematics and science. Instead, educators and policymakers should take into consideration the mosaic of factors that contribute and/or inhibit the academic success of the heterogeneous population of LEP learners.

Framing the Mosaic—Understanding Programmatic Instructional Models

A review of research literature on the most promising solutions for educating LEP students, as well as the personal experiences of the authors, has led to the conclusion that instructional models are only one educational factor to consider. If other important factors are not concurrently addressed, then schools will be less successful in providing quality education for LEP students, regardless of instructional model.

Although we believe that instructional models are only one factor affecting student success, they are vital and have been a primary concern of teachers and school administrators. Such models also provide the mosaic's background, the frame in which other influences may be examined. They offer an effective format for examining the issues and concerns inherent in effectively educating LEP students.

Since the 1950s, linguists and educators have been defining the best and most effective approach of teaching English as a second language (ESL). Among the many methods (e.g., The Situational Language Teaching Method, The Total Physical Response Method, The Audiolingual Method, and The Silent Way, among others) the primary focus was on the learner's proficiency, prior education, and short- and long-term goals. Such goals define not only ESL and bilingual programs but also other programs prioritizing content—influencing that foremost concern of educators, students, and parents: How can we develop effective models of teaching LEP students that target their individual needs?

Quite a range of models (see Table 1) has been designed, from which educators can now choose a model that appeals best to the specific needs of their students. Although the models (or approaches) outlined in the table below were not developed exclusively for teaching mathematics and science to LEP students, they offer useful strategies and format for effectively integrating content and language.

Table 1. Instructional Programs for Limited English Proficient Students

ESL Programs
Preferred at schools where LEP students are diverse and speak many different home languages. They are usually accommodated in the same classroom. Teachers needn't be proficient in a language other than English (Rennie, 1993). One such model:
  • ESL pull-out
Bilingual Programs
Preferred at schools where the majority of LEP students come from the same language background. Teachers must be proficient in their students' home language as instruction occurs in both students' home language and English (Rennie, 1993). Major models include:
  • Early-exit bilingual
  • Late-exit bilingual
  • Two-way (or dual) bilingual
Other Programs
Used at schools where the concentration of instruction is neither on the home language nor the English language. The program models focus on content rather than language (Rennie, 1993). Some major models include:
  • Sheltered instruction
  • Immersion
  • CALLA (Cognitive Academic Language Learning Approach)
  • Content-based instruction

As Table 1 shows, there are quite a few instructional models, such as sheltered instruction or immersion, that focus exclusively on delivering content rather than direct instruction in ESL, which is "adapted to meet the needs of students who are not proficient in English" (Rennie, 1993, p. 3).

Teaching students to understand content is (and should be) the central focus and ultimate goal of any subject, especially in science and mathematics. Researchers claim that teaching LEP students for understanding enables those students to "develop academic skills while learning English" (Rennie, 1993, p. 4). In mathematics, for example, "the best teaching practices are those that assess what students understand in a range of mathematical problem settings and then develop those understandings to their mathematical end points" (Secada & Carey, 1990).

Developing mathematical understanding does not mean displaying immediate knowledge, but it rather manifests itself in students' ability to "link what they are learning to previous knowledge that they already (should) have" (Secada & Carey, 1990). Similarly, learning science with understanding does not merely include familiarity with scientific terminology and an ability to do exercises and drills in a science textbook; rather, becoming science-literate means being capable of applying knowledge to one's individual life, recognizing the diversity and unity of the natural world, understanding strengths and weaknesses of technological applications, and exploring scientific questions rather than getting the answers right (Nelson, 1999; Lee & Fradd, 1996). Expressed succinctly, "Literacy development, including manipulating materials, describing, and communicating outcomes, forms the basis of scientific literacy" (Lee & Fradd, 1996, p. 652).

The following are descriptions of four of the major instructional models focusing on conveying content (such as mathematics and science) to LEP students rather than direct instruction in ESL. These include sheltered instruction, English immersion, Cognitive Academic Language Learning Approach (CALLA) and content-based.

In a general overview, sheltered instruction has been implemented in secondary schools during the past few years. Sheltered instruction helps teachers present "instructional material in a way that minimizes [student] dependency on language, and concentrates instead on teaching concepts" (Harris, 1995, p. 24). The instruction aims at enhancing the process of simultaneous acquisition of scientific and mathematical concepts and language, and it is often enriched with audio and visual aids. However, sheltered instruction is sometimes criticized for being simplified, or watered down (Smith, 1995), as well as being unable to allot "enough time to both cover the regular mathematics [or science] curriculum adequately and do justice to language development" (Secada & Carey, 1990). Currently, a 5-year project by Center for Research on Education, Diversity & Excellence (CREDE) is being conducted to develop an explicit model of sheltered instruction, to determine effective strategies and evaluate results of such instruction, "The Effects of Sheltered Instruction on the Achievement of Limited English Proficient Students"

The 30-year-old policy of bilingual education in California has continually highlighted the importance of teaching students English and subject matter classes in their primary language so they achieve better mastery of subjects (e.g., mathematics and science), learn English faster, achieve higher self-esteem and, thus, lower the number of school dropouts. But the heated debate over the effects and achievement of bilingual education is nowhere near resolution. Critics believe that bilingual education fails to provide LEP learners with adequate English instruction or linguistic curriculum, leading to comparatively low scores. Advocates, on the other hand, claim that effective bilingual programs actually accomplish the following goals:

English immersion is now increasingly advocated as an effective alternative program to teach LEP students. WestEd's Inventory of Bilingual and Immersion Educational Models gives a more extensive overview of various models.

During the last thirty years, immersion programs have been rapidly emerging, yet show a very low percentage (1%) of LEP student enrollment (Downs-Reid, 2000) Why? In part, parents are concerned whether their children will "perform as well as children in non-immersion schools on English standardized tests" (Downs-Reid, 2000). However, American Council on Immersion Education (ACIE) cites research findings indicating that in immersion programs, LEP students do well or even better than their native English peers on English assessments "after some English instruction has been added to the curriculum" (Downs-Reid, 2000). Furthermore, immersion benefits LEP students in providing them with second language proficiency and developing cultural awareness (Downs-Reid, 2000).

Genesee (1994) presented a selective review of research findings on LEP student achievement in immersion programs in Canada and the United States and concluded that there are three lessons arising from immersion, which reveal that teaching second language through the specific, rich, and meaningful content integration is more effective than teaching language in isolation; that engaging LEP students and providing them with opportunities for an extended discourse associated with immediate academic tasks have obvious benefits for language learning; and also that implicit language teaching, which focuses on academic content, provides students with meaningful and authentic context, yet it should be systematically integrated with academic objectives.

Cognitive Academic Language Learning Approach (CALLA), which may be considered as a branch of content-based instruction, is yet another instructional model designed to meet the academic needs of LEP students, while developing their academic language without watering the material down.

This model, originally geared towards upper elementary and secondary LEP students, integrates academic language development, content-area instruction, as well as explicit instruction in learning strategies for content and language acquisition (O'Malley & Chamot, 1990). It targets three types of students: 1) students who have started developing their English communicative skills, yet lack in academic language proficiency; 2) students whose academic skills in their native language are mostly proficient, yet not fully transferred into English; and 3) students who are bilingual English-dominant but with no academic language skills in either language (Chamot & O'Malley, 1994).

Generally, students in CALLA use the language as a learning tool; the focus of this model lies on "acquisition and use of procedural skills [i.e., the ability to generate and apply language] that facilitate academic language and content learning" (O'Malley & Chamot, 1990). Curriculum-wise, CALLA is effective in teaching science, where "teachers can provide hands-on learning activities that provide contextual support and academic language development" (O'Malley & Chamot, 1990). This model is also applicable in mathematics teaching, which "has a more restricted language register than science" (O'Malley & Chamot, 1990). The strength of CALLA is in its focus of making challenging content comprehensible, instead of watering it down. Teachers may use visuals, hands-on activities, and/or demonstrations to provide additional support for LEP students (O'Malley & Chamot, 1990). Because of its three features—content, academic language, and learning strategies—CALLA can be taught in various classrooms, including bilingual, pullout ESL, or sheltered (Chamot & O'Malley, 1994). However, the key to implementing CALLA successfully depends on "extensive and ongoing teacher training" and professional development, as well as increasing expertise in learning strategies instruction (O'Malley & Chamot, 1990; Chamot, 1995).

Overall, content-based instruction in teaching mathematics and science has been used in middle and high schools, as well as in teaching adults. Content-based instruction is rooted in the assumption that the learner best acquires knowledge that is meaningful; thus, content-based "programs have been developed to provide students with an opportunity to learn CALP (cognitive academic language proficiency), as well as to provide a less abrupt transition from the ESL classroom to an all-English-medium academic program" (Reilly, 1988).

This approach can allow the language and content teachers to work together, helping students develop their "language, content, cognitive, and study skills" (Crandall, 1994)). The Center for Advanced Research and Language Acquisition (CARLA) defines principles and concerns rooted in content-based instruction and further argues that, regardless of such variables as the age or the background of the learner, "the research in immersion and bilingual education as well as content-based ESL has consistently demonstrated that using language as the vehicle for learning content makes sense and is effective" (Why Content-Based Instruction?).

With the various instructional models to choose among, no wonder the debate continues as to what model is the best for a particular school setting. In addition, factors such as specific district or school demographics, student characteristics, and resources make selecting a programmatic instructional model a complex task for administrators.

Researchers offer some guidance by highlighting key characteristics and suggesting guidelines that compose an effective instructional model (Rennie, 1993), including:

Examining the Mosaic—Focusing the Lens of Mathematics and Science Language

Based on the common belief that mathematics and science are languages of their own, many educators think they need to be taught to students as if they were foreign languages; in other words, "the nature of math and science language imposes a heavy burden on all students regardless of the language of instruction" (Short & Spanos, 1989). The approach of teaching mathematics and science as different languages requires educators to teach students to talk science and do what scientists and mathematicians do, which means "observing, describing, comparing, classifying, analyzing, discussing, hypothesizing, theorizing, questioning, challenging, arguing, designing experiments, deciding, concluding, generalizing, reporting, and through the language of science" and mathematics (Lemke, 1990, qtd. in "Teaching Science in a Dual Language Classroom"). In addition, LEP students cannot be regarded as "a homogenous group to which an 'effective practice' can be applied" (GutiťGrez, 2001, p.10). Latina/os, for example, have received increasing attention in research that illustrates ways to support teachers and honor students' identities through language and culture (GutiťGrez, 2001).

Learning the language of mathematics and science starts prior to formal education. Based on the hypothesis in a recent study, communication skills develop before academic skills (Pingree, Hawkins, & Botta, 2000). Thus, family communication appears to be of importance in developing the academic skills of the learner, and the family's patterns can affect the development of a child's scientific literacy skills as well. For instance, Pingree, Hawkins, & Botta, (2000) argue that concept-oriented families tend to express their opinions, while socio-oriented families tend to conform to standard, common opinions. Depending on which of the two types of families the learners grow up in, their understanding of scientific thinking, based on the communication pattern used in the family, may affect their critical evaluation of academic information. For example, learners from concept-oriented families tend to develop their own ideas and higher critical thinking, which is crucial in developing science literacy skills. Additional connections between family communication patterns and their impact on LEP students' ability to gain proficiency in mathematics and science warrant further study by researchers.

However, we have to keep in mind that families do not necessarily fall into two distinct categories, just as LEP learners do not all fall into a homogenous group. As learners are diverse, so, too, are their families, particularly families of LEP students, bringing into the scenario differences in their education experiences, native cultures, and languages. With this in mind, we need to consider family as another salient factor involved in the child's academic development, especially mathematics and science learning. The role of the family in learning needs to be embraced in the mosaic nature of LEP student education.

Blending Unique Mosaic Colors—A Vibrant Mix of Student Factors

It can't be stressed enough that students learning English as a second language are an extremely diverse population. They differ in many ways, from their family to their culture and linguistic intricacies of their language; effective mathematics and science instruction should be developed with an eye to all the subtle shadings these characteristics impart.

Although many educators focus on effective instruction in second language learner's mathematics and science learning, there is a huge risk if they neglect or overlook cultural values and family engagement in the learning process. Researchers often argue that learning in the home is crucial in helping all children become and remain motivated learners. The freedom felt in a familiar, nonthreatening environment of one's home encourages scientific and mathematical exploration that, in a formal school setting, may be intimidating. At home, parents' engagement in their children's learning strengthens children's' capabilities for intellectual growth and allows them to make sense out of everyday activities, thereby deepening their understanding of mathematics, science, and technology. Dierking, Falk, Hall, & Schaverien (2001) noted that children who are deeply involved with their families tend to "persistently ask questions," to "continually observe and participate in the mature activities of the communities," to "adopt strategies such as looking, reading, and manipulating," and to "repeatedly explore exhibits." In other words, "almost all students encounter a wealth of home practices?that contain mathematical content" (Secada, 2001, p. 4). If engaged, all of these activities or practices are likely to increase LEP students' academic abilities and proficiency.

Central to learning at home are patterns of learning with understanding. Secada (2001) observed that many approaches parents (especially mothers or caretakers of young children) use to facilitate a child's understanding, should be used in classroom-based language practices. Hence, teachers can support student learning based on the way mothers (or primary caretakers) help their children develop their native language when they do the following:

  1. Simplify their speech—In the classroom, teachers may use active voice and present tense, and provide objects, pictures, and manipulatives. Questions should be modified according to their linguistic complexity in a certain order: simple directives, yes/no, multiple choice, and wh- questions (who-what-when-where-why-which) (Secada, 2001).

  2. Expand their children's utterances in meaningful ways—In the classroom, teachers should not comment on the linguistic construction but rather expand on what the student said by giving feedback (Secada, 2001).

  3. Scaffold their children's own language productions—In the classroom, teachers should try to accept student answers in any language, answers that are of limited linguistic complexity by providing missing words or asking questions and gradually requiring increasingly elaborated sentences (Secada, 2001).

  4. Focus on understanding what the child is trying to say—Accordingly, teachers should focus on the content of the response, expanding the original utterance in their own responses as the need arises (Secada, 2001).

Other socioeconomic characteristics (e.g., parents' education, income, median age, homeownership, number of children) taken into consideration, LEP children are more likely to succeed academically if their parents actively support their learning. They can (a) provide "a home environment that supports children's learning needs; (b) volunteer in the schools as aides or in other roles; (c) monitor children's progress and communicate with school personnel; and (d) tutor children at home to reinforce work done in school" (Simich-Dudgeon, 1986, qtd. in Weinstein-Shr, 1994, p. 113). In addition, "children's achievement in school has been demonstrated to be directly correlated with the mother's level of education," as mother is usually the first teacher (Sticht, 1988, qtd. in Weinstein-Shr, 1994, p. 112). Constructing conversations; talking about books and pictures in those books; telling bedtime stories; reading aloud; and asking questions are important steps toward developing the child's literacy skills. Weinstein-Shr (1994) cites research that shows how parent-child interaction affects student learning and how such interaction is especially valuable where literacy in a foreign language is new to both parent(s) and child.

However, researchers also have documented many difficulties experienced by the parents of LEP students. Concentrating on strategies employed in working with parents of LEP students, McCollum & Russo (1993), outline the following four concerns:

  1. Parents do not necessarily see structured time together as beneficial to their children, nor do they always see the learning value of play (McCollum & Russo, 1993, p. 21).

  2. Parents may unwittingly subvert the purpose of the time together, by taking over the tasks themselves to make sure that they are done properly (McCollum & Russo, 1993, p. 23).

  3. Creating activities that all participants can carry out together is difficult?older children are often more proficient in English than their parents, which can complicate group dynamics (McCollum & Russo, 1993, p. 23).

  4. Many parents look at parent-child time as simply the price they must pay to have access to the adult instruction (McCollum & Russo, 1993, p. 23).

As is evident from the above concerns, it is quite complicated, if not impossible, to develop LEP students' literacy and thus higher academic achievement if family factors are overlooked and parental literacy development is ignored.

Because family is "a crucial resource for making sense of a new life in a new setting" (Weinstein-Shr, 1994, p. 119), its basic economic, social, and psychological needs should be reflected in designing ways to help LEP learners achieve mathematical and scientific proficiency and power.

It has long been understood that the learner's family culture brings a unique perspective on learning. "Many ESL students have had rich experiences exploring with brothers and sisters, working with parents, or listening to the lore of older family members?. That the school recognizes the value of this related knowledge is important to the students' self esteem" (Korn, 1978, p. 3).

The concept "culture" entails one's beliefs, social practices, national origin, native language, as well as one's "socio-economic status, level of education, religion, age, generation, number of years or generations of residence in the United States, and other group affiliations," including family values (McCollum & Russo, 1993). Culture features among the factors affecting mathematics and science learning; according to Simich-Dudgeon & Egbert (2000, p. 30), "cultural differences may?lead English language learners to produce alternative hypotheses and interpretations." Thus the learner's cognitive ability and his or her cultural orientation (i.e., their attitudes towards the native culture and new culture) may predict the level of the learner's educational success, if the learner's first language and second language skills are sufficiently supported by peer and caretaker interactions (Verhoeven, 1991).

Coming from diverse cultures, families bring with them different expectations of formal and informal education. Some parents may regard interaction with children in play as spoiling them, or they may use more physical discipline to deal with a child's misbehavior (McCollum & Russo, 1993). Some believe learning involves only a child and a teacher, not a parent. Yet others may have low expectations for educational achievement for their children due to their own lack of education. This tendency is especially evident in parental expectations of girls; some cultures regard advanced education of a girl as a threat to a masculine role in a family (McCollum & Russo, 1993). However, despite the tension between expectations and beliefs of the old and the new cultures, most immigrant families tend to be highly motivated to learn, to change, and to adapt. These traits tend to dominate what the majority of immigrant families commonly expect of their children.

In short, the in-home learning and cultural environment encompasses many factors that influence the learner's academic success, such as communication among family members, communication with people outside the family, the family contact with second-language speakers, parental attitudes toward first-language maintenance and second-language learning, and use of media at home (Verhoeven, 1991). But second-language family involvement in education had received "scant attention" until very recently, so the issue of "improving the amount and quality of parent involvement in children's education remains a continuing challenge" (McCollum & Russo, 1993, p. 7).

For a long time, research studies have argued that language learners are disadvantaged in the academic world because their limited English proficiency hinders their understanding and thus negatively affects their performance. To better understand the language learner's struggle with English, language, and content, teachers need to consider a variety of linguistic factors that, as research is attempting to prove, are now becoming increasingly important as schools reconsider how to teach mathematics and science to LEP students.

Partially influenced by family factors, the question "To what extent should native language use be encouraged?" leads some to argue that the more academic exposure an immigrant child has to his or her native language prior to formal education in English, the more he or she will succeed in learning English (National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition, 1995). However, the learner's success will not solely depend on his or her native-language knowledge or abilities.

Different languages may vary in their complexity of scientific concepts and generalizing concepts (Strevens, 1969). Scientific concepts are those unique and essential to science, whereas generalizing concepts include "grammatico-logical operators" (e.g., although, as if, for the purpose of), affecting one's ability to generalize from observations, to perceive relationships, to carry out a certain amount of mental arithmetic, to visualize (Strevens, 1969, p. 2). These generalizing concepts are closely related to scientific concepts. Mainly because of this relation, they cannot be ignored, but rather "they must be seen to constitute a learning problem of a conceptualizing kind for all advanced learners" (Strevens, 1969, p. 3). Frequently, LEP students with different linguistic backgrounds encounter different conceptual difficulties in learning science and mathematics in English, a result of the extent of their education in the mother tongue. Ideally, educators need to strive for finding ways that reduce the learner's dependency not only on their native language, but on the target language as well; in other words, relying more often on mathematical and scientific language—or, understanding "a language on top of a language" (Sanchez, personal communication, 2001)—may be beneficial for both students and teachers.

One of the ways to ease the dependency is modification, which employs adaptions of sentence length, word selection, word use, and complexity of syntax to allow teachers to target student scientific comprehension rather than their linguistic apprehension (Bird & Welford, 1995). Rollnick (2000) cites research (e.g., Clark 1999, Prophet & Towse, 1999) that reports evidence that LEP students are found to have a much poorer understanding of nontechnical terms and everyday words than of technical words and concepts, which lead them to misinterpret and misunderstand science. Carlson (2000), too, notes that it is not the technical terms that make academic language so difficult for new speakers of English; in fact, technical terms can be easily memorized and are usually thoroughly covered in class because they are equally new to all students. It is the functional words and common, familiar English words that give most difficulty to LEP students because teachers assume students already know them.

Simplification differs from modification in that it tends to target both grammatical adaptions of modification as well as vocabulary. This strategy may "deprive the students of the very words and linguistic structure they need to understand the science" (Bernhardt, Hirsch, Teemant, & Rodrigues-Munoz, 1996, p. 27). Thus, unlike modification, "simplification does not always enhance comprehension" (Bernhardt et al., 1996, p. 26). Because native and nonnative English speakers are often learning new scientific and mathematic terminology at the same time, simplification may, in fact, impede progress.

Some research suggests that LEP students do have an advantage in learning science in another language because "concepts and cognitive skills can easily transfer between a student's first language and English" (Carlson, 2000, p. 49). Furthermore, bilingualism and multilingualism can be a valuable ability in that "the bilingual pupil has a wider experience of learning and making sense of new languages" (Kearsey & Turner, 1999, p. 1038). Diglossia, or fluency in two languages, appears to benefit students in interpreting scientific and mathematical knowledge. GutiťGrez (2001) interviewed three high school mathematics teachers and observed that when students are allowed to work in groups and use their primary language (in this case, Spanish) and English, the results are quite satisfying: student identity is preserved, they are more engaged and have greater access to the context material through their peers. In other words, this involves making meaning and building a discourse in both languages on top of the language of mathematics.

But that is not to say that LEP students do not experience difficulties in a complex mathematical or scientific discourse. Despite the fact that they are preconditioned to learn science and mathematics due to their metalinguistic awareness (experience in how languages work), they may find it difficult to "identify problems and solutions; test these solutions; design procedures and data analyses; formulate new questions based on previous claims and solutions; develop questions based on prior knowledge; linking?experience to activities, science concepts, and science principles; sharing and discussing?procedures, products, and solutions" (Carlson, 2000, p. 49). However, they tend to perform as well as any monolingual, sometimes even better, when the text, for example, is modified to target their scientific and mathematical knowledge and not their linguistic abilities. Even more importantly, modeling the discourse rather than providing vocabulary lists may be the key in supporting meaningful student encounters with mathematics (GutiťGrez, 2001). In addition, students perform more successfully when instructional strategies "acknowledge, respect, and build upon the language and culture of the home" (Garcia, 1991).

Creating the Mosaic's Cohesive Strength—Quality of School Factors

It is important to keep in mind that "many of the difficulties experienced by under-prepared students cannot be attributed only to, or explained by, the second language use but must be understood in terms of a broader socio-cultural perspective" (Miller, Bradbury, & Pedley, 1998, p. 103). Differences in academic performance result from the level of preparedness, the quality of student prior education, as well as other factors that enlighten this issue.

Schools do not have primary control to influence student, family, and language factors. However, one factor about which schools can exert primary control is critical—the quality of teachers who will be working with the LEP students. Simply, educators are important determiners of how successful second language students will be. Other determiners of student success that are controlled by schools include curriculum, instruction, technology, and assessment.

Teacher Quality
Just as family is the primary factor in the home, the teacher is the primary factor in school. Much depends on the teacher promoting students' higher-order thinking skills, which are required for academic success (Lee & Fradd, 1996, p. 669). Teachers must be aware of diverse languages and cultures in their classrooms so that they can help the literacy development of their students and be better able to select those instructional activities that promote science learning (Lee & Fradd, 1996). Teachers are also encouraged to "engage in the interactions with their students in ways that would be culturally and linguistically congruent" (Lee & Fradd, 1996, p. 657).

Photograph of Gil Valdez. Ultimately, teacher attitude and behavior is vital to helping LEP students succeed, argues Gil Valdez, Ph.D., Deputy Director, NCREL, and Director of the North Central Eisenhower Mathematics and Science Consortium..
[QuickTime Video and text. Information about QuickTime is available].

One of parents' most important concerns seems to be the teacher's language. Those parents whose children are in bilingual classrooms often argue that a teacher should not use students' native language in classroom instruction unless the teacher has an extremely good command of that language (Pease-Alvarez, 1993). It is expected that if the teacher shares a common language with a student, he or she will be better able to help the child in the linguistic overlap. The bilingual teacher's role, therefore, "is crucial to learning and development" (Chapman, 1994). But fluency in the student's native language is not enough; educators need to understand how language figures in education and even receive some preparation in educational linguistics prior to teaching.

Logically, teacher training has become a [legitimate] concern as the number of second language learners in American classrooms grows (Crandall, 1994). Cooperation between language educators and content teachers is highly supported because it helps to accommodate this linguistically diverse student population (Reilly, 1988). Such collaboration is very beneficial because "language teachers can provide insights into linguistic and cultural problems and offer communicative activities?and content teachers can suggest topics for the language courses that reinforce the content the students face" (Short & Spanos, 1989).

However, to meet vigorous science literacy goals, one of which is "assembling standards-based curriculum materials into coherent programs," teachers need "time, resources, expertise, and preparation" (Nelson, 1999, p. 17). Consequently, schools need to pay attention to the limited capacity of their staff to instruct LEP learners because there are not enough teachers trained in ESL and there is a "limited number of content teachers (e.g., math and science) who can communicate effectively with LEP/immigrant children" (Ruiz-de-Velasco, Fix, & Chu Clewell, 2000).

The Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) offers thorough information on the status of mathematics and science in the United States compared to other countries. It shows that approximately 40 percent of the variance in achievement is related to nonschool factors. High-achieving schools across this international study have higher levels of parental education, homes with more books, and more study aids. In addition, the high-achieving schools have parents and students who value immediate and long-term student achievement. Given that schools have limited control of these factors, it is easy for educators to become discouraged about what they can do for LEP and nonLEP students. The assertion can be made, however, that the opposite is true—educators can greatly influence student success—because more than half of the variance, or 60 percent, that distinguishes high-achieving schools from low-achieving schools is, in fact, directly related to school factors.

Curriculum is a vital school factor. Curriculum is the blueprint for how schools will provide learning opportunities for students. The degree of curricular modifications required for LEP students can only be determined by closely looking at both student academic achievement and student experience with formal and informal education.

A very deliberate and thorough assessment of students' academic and language skills and knowledge is the first requirement for working with all LEP students. As Carlson (2000) noted, those students who come from another country and who have at least some academic training or experience are likely to be more successful, whereas those who don't have any academic experience have to learn science and language simultaneously.

Curriculum can be organized in a variety of ways: by full year projects, by themes, or by concepts. Most researchers agree that LEP students are most successful when the curriculum is broken into large ideas that have an inherent organizational structure in which the same idea is represented in different ways. Curriculum organized in this manner uses concepts as its structure. Kessler and Quinn (1980) suggest that LEP students do indeed have a higher level of concept formation, especially additive bilinguals (those who acquire two languages deemed as appropriate to use in the classroom), and that curriculum organized by concept is helpful. Rollnick (2000) agrees when he notes that bilingual students could have an advantage in concept acquisition because multiple language use helps the learner see different representations of the same ideas. He noted that researchers have found that second language learners should shift their focus to concept learning rather than terminology because code switching helps them "provide contexts for meaning" (Rollnick, 2000, p. 102).

Even more important than curriculum organization itself is the belief structure underlying that curriculum. Often the curriculum is modified for particular groups with generalizations made that can be very damaging to some or all of those students. Considerable evidence, especially that developed from TIMSS and the TIMSS-R, shows there is a correlation between poverty and lower achievement. Often because some second language students do not succeed immediately, people assume that it is the second language that is the cause of academic or cognitive difficulty and are unaware that the student comes from a high-poverty family situation.

Equally damaging generalizations are made about LEP students' ability to understand what is spoken to them. Some people assume that because a student makes syntax language errors when speaking, that student is unable to understand what is going on. In fact, language skills such as subject-verb agreement come much later than understanding of meaning. Effective student assessment should allow students to demonstrate mathematic and scientific skills; assessment should not be primarily a reading test. Because the curriculum is a blueprint for what a student will learn, it must be based on clear distinctions between mathematics (or science) ability and characteristics of language and poverty. Lack of such distinctions could lead to diminished or misinformed judgments about an LEP student's abilities.

The most recent analysis of TIMSS data revealed that the single most important instructional variable for science students in high-performing versus low-performing schools was whether science was taught as a discovery activity with emphasis on students carrying out experiments and practical investigations. An instruction variable in mathematics is whether teachers frequently check mathematics homework in class so as to assess and support full understanding (Martin, Mullis, Gregory, Hoyle, & Shen, 2000). An expert in teaching LEP students made those same recommendations several years before the TIMSS study. Harris (1995) indicated that emphasis must be put on hands-on experience rather than learning terminology. He noted that second language students should have written activities as well, as they help students with their ability to explain, express, and internalize.

All students can benefit from research-based best practices. However, there are some modifications in instruction that are especially helpful to LEP students. Bernhardt, Hirsch, Teemant, & Rodriguez-Munoz (1996) believe that ESL classrooms need to offer more avenues of instruction and more ways for students to demonstrate their knowledge. Some of the instructional adaptations recommended include the following:

GutiťGrez (2001) believes that the lack of attention to a student's culture and language is even more pronounced in secondary schools. Some of the wide-ranging cautions she explores are as follows:

Moschkovich (2000) makes similar recommendations noting that:

"Classroom instruction should support bilingual students' engagement in conversations about mathematics that go beyond the translation of vocabulary and involve students in communicating about mathematical concepts. Instruction needs to support students' resources from the situation or the everyday register, in whichever language students choose. Lastly, assessments of how well students communicate mathematically need to consider more than their use of vocabulary. These assessments should include how students use the situation, the everyday register, and their first language as resources, as well as how they make comparisons, explain conclusions, specify claims, and use mathematical representations." (pp. 91-92)

In mathematics, as in all subject areas, educators need to know that there is no single answer that will address the needs of all LEP students. Secada (1993) noted the good news is that schools can improve achievement for diverse students if they use research-based interventions such as providing a stay-in-school support program, providing supplementary assistance, using appropriate instructional strategies, working in cooperative groups, or using ability grouping only when necessary. However, he noted that the bad news is "we do not know whether these practices are equally effective for all students. Nor, for that matter, do we seem to know how to structure interventions whose effects are long-lasting" (p. 653). Secada cautioned educators to avoid the ability and achievement loop that would place students into interventions based upon achievement data that would then place students in lower ability settings that would in turn lead to lower achievement that would then loop to even lower placement.

Much like the TIMSS findings for checking homework for understanding, vocabulary support, prewriting, and reading activities are essential for acquiring full potential in science. Quality instruction requires checking for understanding when the concepts are introduced and throughout the instructional activity.

Technology use is directing schools to another promising avenue of helping LEP students to learn mathematics and science for understanding. The role of technology has been increasingly discussed in hopes of bringing students and science together, thereby easing the process of language minority student integration into the mathematics and science classroom. Smith (1995) calls technology a great equalizer. On the other hand, it also can be argued that the competitive and impersonal atmosphere that technology may bring into the science or mathematics classroom can leave learners disoriented. Certainly technology has the potential to improve LEP student success in mathematics and science, but it isn't a bandage solution, and more research is needed to determine its most beneficial applications.

However, as the concept of being science literate is changing, technology holds promise in establishing science discourse. Today schools are aiming at teaching children not only to be familiar with scientific terminology and textbook drills in order to be capable of applying knowledge to their individual lives, but also to recognize the diversity and unity of the natural world, understand strengths and weaknesses of technological applications, and explore scientific questions rather than get the answers right (Nelson, 1999; Lee & Fradd, 1996). It's been argued that science, to any learner, is a language of its own (Rosenthal, 1996), but research is showing evidence that technology reduces student dependency on language to some extent, bringing native and nonnative English speakers together. Further, science in general is a good medium for making the most use of technology "since so much of it is hands-on" (Harris, 1995, p. 26).

Because nonnative English learners may often have difficulty in verbal expression, some researchers see technology as a valuable means of teaching them science and mathematics. Garc? (1999) investigated how animation software and comic strip creation affect bilingual children and how such creation "might contribute to the production of tight science explanations by young children with emerging bilingual skills," where 'tight' means "that a student has produced a visual or verbal representation that is cohesive and close to how nature (or a particular phenomenon) operates" (Garc?, 1999, p. 2). Garc? believes that activities supported by technology "[give] second language learners a linguistic pause or 'nonverbal period' where they can conceptualize natural phenomenon in detail without the stress associated with using a new language" (p. 9). Depending on how technology is used, it can place little "if any, linguistic demands?on the bilingual child," thus allowing him or her focus on learning science and make sense of it (p.10).

Technology is among the multidimensional factors, which, taken as a whole, create a rich mosaic of influences that can inform teaching mathematics and science to LEP students. Ultimately, this mosaic depends on efficient assessment to provide the measure of its quality.

Photograph of Gil Valdez. Gil Valdez, Ph.D., Deputy Director, NCREL, and Director of the North Central Eisenhower Mathematics and Science Consortium, cautions against assessments that do not credit cultural nuances.
[QuickTime Video and text. Information about QuickTime is available].

Concern about providing fair and accurate assessments for LEP students has grown during the past few decades. Under a U.S. Department of Education memorandum upheld by a Supreme Court ruling in 1970, school districts are required to take steps to help LEP students overcome language barriers so that they can participate meaningfully in the public education programs in their school districts (Office of Civil Rights, U.S. Department of Education, 1999, p. 4). The memorandum clarified school districts' Title VI responsibilities to provide equal educational opportunity to language minority students.

The Improving America's Schools Act of 1994 (IASA) requires states to adopt a standards-based system in which all students, including limited English proficiency students, are expected to reach high standards. IASA requires states to implement assessment systems by the 2000-01 school year that allow all students, including LEP students, to demonstrate their knowledge and skills. In addition, the Individual with Disabilities Act Amendment of 1997 (IDEA-97) requires that teachers play a significant role in the assessment of special learners, including English language learners (Rivera, Stansfield, Scialdone, & Sharkey, 2000). The focus of these assessment standards is on finding ways to make large-scale tests reliable measures of what English language learners know and can do.

According to the report titled Programs for English Language Learners: Resource Materials for Planning and Self-Assessments, published by the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights (1999), "Under federal law, programs to educate children with limited proficiency in English must be: (1) based on a sound educational theory; (2) adequately supported so that the program has a realistic chance of success; and (3) periodically evaluated and revised, if necessary," (p. 5).

Assessment needs for LEP students require attention to three factors. First, each student should have his or her own English language proficiency goal based on diagnostic assessment(s) that provide baseline data and identify unique needs for the program to address. This data is useful to both students and teachers in designing customized ESL plans for each learner participating in the ESL program. Second, assessments aligned with content area and other learning standards in the district are needed to measure how well the students are progressing within the district's curriculum. This type of assessment assists in providing evidence that the ESL program is helping its students engage in meaningful learning opportunities aligned with district and state learning standards for all learners. The third factor, assessment that measures English language proficiency, can help track the progress LEP students make in English language skill acquisition. These assessments will provide the basis for deciding when a student is ready for transition from the ESL program to mainstream coursework (without assessment accommodations).

A recent study conducted by Abedi, Lord, Hofstetter, & Baker (2000) highlights findings that should be taken into consideration when planning and interpreting content-area assessments for LEP students. The study involved 946 8th-grade students using mathematics test items from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The researchers employed four accommodation strategies during the study: 1) simplified English language in the test items; 2) a glossary of nonmath words or phrases; 3) an extra 25 minutes of time; and 4) a glossary plus the extra 25 minutes of time. LEP students' scores were higher on all types of accommodations except glossary only. However, accommodations also helped nonLEP students who were randomly assigned to the different accommodation groups. The only type of accommodation that narrowed the achievement gap between LEP and nonLEP was the simplified English language strategy. This strategy involved modifying the mathematics word problems for difficult generic vocabulary and sentence structure. The mathematics vocabulary was not changed in any of the test items. (Making changes to test items, however, requires careful psychometric design to maintain the validity and reliability of the test. Practitioners interested in implementing language modification accommodations need to obtain approved alternative test formats from the test makers.)

In addition, Abedi, Lord, Kim and Miyoshi (2001) found a relationship between students' language background and test performance with accommodations. The 946 students included in the study were given a NAEP reading test to obtain a measure of their reading proficiency levels. Their results confirmed findings from other research studies showing a correlation between high English reading ability and high arithmetic problem-solving ability. This finding indicates the importance of making accommodations for differences in students' language background when testing students' content area knowledge and abilities. It highlights the significance of language ability in assessment outcomes. However, the researchers in this study call for further research to verify the impact of accommodations for LEP learners in general.

According to an analysis of state policies for inclusion and accommodation of LEP learners conducted by Rivera et al. (2000), accommodations appropriate for LEP students include presentation and response, format, setting, and timing/scheduling of tests. However, these authors note that studies of the impacts of accommodations on LEP students are scant. They point out that the accommodation strategy of translating and/or altering tests can be quite problematic in terms of cost and measurement validity. But Title I does provide for the use of surrogate instruments such as standardized alternative assessments including portfolios, projects, and performance tasks that allow students to demonstrate their content knowledge and skills.

Despite legislative mandates for fair testing of LEP students, as of 1999 only 40 states had ESL accommodation policies and 37 actually were implementing accommodations. Accommodations for timing/scheduling and the setting for tests are most frequently allowed by states (Rivera et al., 2000). However, presentation and response accommodations, which can address the linguistic needs of LEP students, are most frequently prohibited. Rivera et al. (2000) recommend that states work on strengthening their policies to guide the development and implementation of more appropriate accommodation strategies for ESL.

Mastering the Mosaic—Planning for LEP Student Success


Teachers and Administrators

LEP Students

Curriculum Design Teams


Teachers, Administrators, Policymakers, Parents, and Students


LEP Students:


One of the most difficult implementation pitfalls facing educators is determining what is fair, equitable, or appropriate assistance to limited English proficiency students. Any additional or even different assistance to LEP students may raise philosophical issues about resource allocations to LEP and nonLEP students.

The National Center for Research in Mathematical Sciences Education (NCRMSE) identified six points of view on what is equitable and fair (Secada, 1994). They noted the following conceptions of equity and fairness:

  1. Concern for the whole child built on the recognition that each student is an individual with unique educational, socio-emotional, and physical needs.

  2. A safety net for individual differences, including backup programs, differentiated curricula and other resources so that when one program does not work for a particular student, other options are available.

  3. The same treatment for everyone so that all students have an equal chance to meet the same standards and an equal opportunity to master those standards.

  4. Compensation for social injustice to specific groups of students who have not received fair treatment or a fair share of the resources.

  5. Triage, i.e., investing in students whose success or failure depends on their school experience.

  6. Maximum return on minimal investment—concentrate scarce resources on students most likely to succeed.

If those in charge of school policy have very different points of view on the philosophical foundations of equity and fairness, then the successful implementation of any program will be extremely difficult. Extra resources provided to LEP students may lead some critics to perceive LEP students as less competent and less capable of attaining high levels of mathematics and science achievement. Students, parents, community members, and educators could internalize the lower expectations, and thus, the lower expectations could become self-fulfilling prophecies that result in lower achievement by LEP students.

Another implementation pitfall involves parental involvement. Parental involvement is key in maintaining high expectations, but because of language differences, parental involvement may require use of translators and meetings outside of school.

A more obvious implementation pitfall is the primary need to find and retain quality teachers who are trained (or retrained) and want to work with LEP students. In many locations, this type of teacher is difficult to find. Without motivated teachers, it is very difficult to provide exemplary instruction to LEP students.

Another implementation pitfall is finding appropriate curriculum and instructional materials, especially in settings where numerous languages are represented.

Further, appropriate assessment for LEP students can be challenging because it is often difficult to determine whether it is language facility or content understanding that is at the root of learning difficulties. This complicates curriculum selection because the curriculum will be based on assessments.


Some people believe that students with certain minority racial or language characteristics do not learn as well as majority students. They believe that there are genetic, social, and cultural differences that make certain students inherently inferior intellectually. Others make generalizations based on a stereotype or a single experience with a member of a minority culture and then assume that all people with that characteristic are exactly the same. Such generalizations can inhibit or prevent fair treatment and effective accommodations for LEP students.

Other people are fearful that the introduction of new cultures and languages will result in a lower quality of life for them—either because they fear change or because they fear that they will not be as important and successful in a culturally expanded and linguistically enriched world. Such attitudes can undermine valid educational initiatives.

Different points of view also might emerge from family or cultural values that hold that learning high mathematics and science should be limited to only a few males and those from particular cultural, linguistic, religious, or racial groups. Often those opinions are based upon a belief that only those select groups have the intelligence to understand difficult topics in mathematics and science.

Others believe that given limited time and resources, LEP students can better profit from the ability to read and write and, therefore, these skills require greater emphasis than advanced mathematics and science. In fact, sometimes it is the families of LEP students who have these opinions because their own difficulties were more focused around language skills than understanding of mathematics and science.

Nevertheless, we certainly believe that all parents, regardless of their language, educational, or cultural experiences, deserve to see their children succeed to the maximum of their abilities. It is, therefore, the major job of schools to enable these dreams to fulfillment.


Nine projects of parental involvement in learning of Limited English Proficiency students are described, addressing the long- and short-term needs of a child.
McCollum, H., & Russo, A. W.W. (March 1993). Model strategies in bilingual education: Family literacy and parent involvement. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Office of the Under Secretary. (ED365168).
Three classrooms in which Limited English Proficiency is a factor, and quality teaching is the focus. In one, a teacher's commitment to LEP students emerges. In another, a teacher opens the door to learning for the whole family. In a third classroom, a school restructuring and refocus on mathematics and science regenerated this learning community.
Jarrett, D. (November 1999). The inclusive classroom: Teaching mathematics and science to English-language learners. Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory.

This paper reports on research that investigates native language maintenance and shift to English among 64 Mexican-descent children and their families. Although the participants in the study live in the same suburban community, they have different immigration backgrounds (Mexican-born, U.S.-born of Mexican-born parents, U.S.-born of parents who were also born in the United States.) Data sources referred to include a variety of interviews and activities used to investigate the participants' language proficiency, attitudes, and choices.
Pease-Alvarez, L. (1993). Moving in and out of bilingualism: Investigating native language maintenance and shift in Mexican-descent children. Research report No. 6. Santa Cruz, CA: National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education.


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National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition & Language Instruction Educational Programs (formerly NCBE)

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Posted: 2002
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