Mathematics Performance of At-Risk First Graders with Limited English Proficiency

BrittanyLee Martin

While developing their English language skills, students with limited English proficiency (LEP) tend to rely heavily on their knowledge of algorithms to complete basic computations (Lee & Jung, 2004). Although adequate computation is foundational for success with higher-order math problems, computational skill alone is not sufficient for advanced tasks such as word-problem solving (Fuchs, Fuchs, Compton, Hamlett, & Wang, 2015). This is not surprising considering word-problem solving requires text processing to decipher the problem situation and an interaction between language comprehension processes and problem-solving strategies (Fuchs et al., 2015). Many studies have demonstrated the cognitive abilities underlying word problem solving and calculation skills differ; however, few studies have examined the extent of these differences specifically in students with limited English proficiency.

The purpose of this study was to explore the interactions between a student’s LEP status and risk status on two early mathematical skills – computation and word-problem solving. To answer this question, we examined pre- and posttest data from the participants in the control groups from the first two cohorts of an ongoing research project. Participants were 260 first-grade students from a southeastern Metropolitan school district. Students were stratified by risk status (at-risk or not at-risk for math difficulty) based on performance on screening assessments at the start of first grade. Students were then assessed in the fall of first grade and again in the spring on basic computation skills (addition and subtraction fluency with answers from 0 to 18) and word problem solving abilities. The authors then examined the performance of both AR and NAR students and examined how LEP status moderated this relationship.

Two-way between-group analysis of variance (ANOVAs) were conducted to assess the impact of risk status and LEP status on computation and word-problem solving performance. On pretest computation measures, the interaction between language status and risk status was not significant; however, on the pretest word problem solving measure the interaction between language and risk status was significant. Post-hoc analysis found a significant difference in scores between LEP and non-LEP students who were NAR. On both the computation and word-problem solving posttest measures, the interaction between language and risk status were not significant.

On pretest computation and word-problem solving measures, LEP students and native English-speaking students who were considered AR performed comparably on both computation and word problem solving measures. However, throughout the course of the school year LEP students struggled to keep up with their peers in both areas, as demonstrated by a .4 increase in effect size on computation measures and a .35 increase in effect size on word-problem solving measures. For students who were considered NAR, a similar trend appeared for computation measures, with students performing comparably at pretest. On word-problem solving measures, the effect size between LEP and non-LEP students was significantly large at pretest, d = 1.0. At posttest, this effect size had decreased, d = .9.





Fuchs, L. S., Fuchs, D., Compton, D. L., Hamlett, C. L., & Wang, A. Y. (2015). Is word-problem solving a form of text comprehension? Scientific Studies of Reading, 19(3), 204-223.

Lee, H., & Jung, W. (2004, Jan). Limited english proficient (LEP) students and mathematical understanding. Mathematics Teaching in the Middle School, 9(5), 269-272.