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Teachers to tackle problem of learning new language, math together

Date of Release: 07/05/2006

SAN MARCOS—Here’s the problem: Only 18 percent of 10th graders in Texas who learn English as a second language pass the state’s standardized test on math.

A conference on Mathematics for English-Language Learners (MELL) meets at Texas State University-San Marcos on July 7-8 to talk about solutions.

A project team of schools in the Texas State University System has been working for two years on finding such solutions. The five-year initiative is funded by a grant from the Texas Education Agency.

In spring 2005, results of the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) showed that 18 percent of high school sophomores classified as English Language Learners (ELL) passed the math portion of the test. In comparison, 58 percent of all l0th graders who took the test passed.

Joyce Fischer of Texas State’s Mathematics Department faculty explains that students who speak one language at home face a “double whammy” when they go to a school taught in another language: They must not only learn to speak another language, but they also have to learn math in that language. “They have two strikes against them already,” she said. “We need to know how to tap into their prior knowledge.”

In Texas, this problem is mainly one of Spanish-speaking children trying to learn to speak English and do math in English at the same time. In Mexico, however, it is the opposite -- children who speak other languages trying to learn Spanish and math at the same time. “We will have 10 teachers from Mexico who face this problem at our conference,” Fischer said. “We hope we can learn from each other about teaching math.”

Fischer works with teachers and students in the Rio Grande Valley, bring together university faculty and K-12 teachers from the U.S. and Mexico to gain a clearer understanding of what ELL students face in acquiring math skills. After the conference, she will accompany teachers from Brownsville on a trip to Guadalajara to study how math is being taught in Mexico.

“We must find a way to teach these students,” Fischer said. “The stakes couldn’t be higher.” She quotes state demographer Stephen Murdock as saying “the successful education of ELL students is essential for the future economic well-being of Texas.” Similar alarming findings have been issued by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board through its Closing the Gaps initiative.

The MELL project team consists of representatives from each Texas State University System school -- Texas State, Angelo State University, Lamar University, Sam Houston State University and Sul Ross State University. Ken Craycraft, system vice chancellor, and Leslie Huling, Texas State professor of education, head the system-wide effort.