Mathematics Learning and the Latino Student: Suggestions from Research for Classroom Practice. (Research, Reflection, Practice)

By Khisty, Lena Licon | Teaching Children Mathematics, September 2002 | Go to article overview

Mathematics Learning and the Latino Student: Suggestions from Research for Classroom Practice. (Research, Reflection, Practice)


Khisty, Lena Licon, Teaching Children Mathematics


The mathematics learning--and overall academic achievement--of Latino children is still a major concern of educators across the country. As we think about the educational issues surrounding Latinos, we need to take into account factors related both to learning in two languages and to learning English as a second language (ESL). A major characteristic of the majority of Latino children is their affiliation with Spanish regardless of their proficiency in that language. Even a child who may not seem to be proficient in speaking Spanish may come from a home or community in which Spanish is spoken extensively. Thus, the child's environment is bilingual, which has a profound influence on his or her experiences, perceptions, and knowledge base. The challenge for mathematics educators is to understand and positively use the linguistic strengths and experiences that children bring to school.

The purpose of this article is to highlight important ideas from current research on the learning of Latinos that provide insights into classroom practices. These ideas are drawn from research in both bilingual and ESL education and mathematics education. In the sections that follow, I present what I believe to be the most fundamental and important elements related to creating effective mathematics learning environments for Latino second-language learners (SLLs). Furthermore, in my professional development work over the last two decades with teachers of mathematics who have significant numbers of Latino students in their classrooms, I have found these ideas to be the most relevant--and the most overlooked. Note, however, that this discussion touches only "the tip of the iceberg" of what is known about effective instruction for SLLs, of which Spanish speakers make up the largest group; the reader is encouraged to refer directly to works cited and to look further into bilingual and ESL professional development opportunities.

Redirecting Our Thinking

Effective instruction for Latino SLLs in mathematics requires that we reconsider the fundamental assumptions that guide our instruction. In classroom-based studies of effective teachers of mathematics with Latinos (for example, Khisty, McLeod, and Bertilson [1990]; Khisty and Viego [1999]; Khisty 2001), one of the factors that differentiates these teachers from others is that their mode of thinking about their students is different. These teachers' assumptions about students differ in two ways. First, they genuinely believe that their students are capable of advanced work in mathematics regardless of the students' current educational status or home background. These teachers operate on the assumption that poor social and economic statuses are political disadvantages, not educational deficits. This assumption is clearly manifested in the curriculum they provide for their students. For example, Chval (2001) describes one fifth-grade teacher who began the school year with a study of right triangles and used this exploration as a problem-solving theme all year long. In this class, which was entirely Latino, students used calculators to solve complex problems and frequently wrote long mathematical explanations about their understanding of geometric figures and their strategies to solve problems. To some observers, this work seemed like that of a gifted class. In fact, some students in this class began the school year as much as two levels below grade, but all finished the year at or above grade level. In other words, some students, including some designated for special education, actually gained as much as two to three grade levels in one year (Chval 2001).

In my own informal observations of classrooms, most Latino students are not exposed to such a rich and challenging mathematics curriculum. This observation is consistent with the work of other researchers (see, for example, Knapp [1995]), yet we know that teaching advanced academic subjects to underachieving students is possible (e. …

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