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Language counts when learning mathematics with interactive apps

Laura Outhwaite, UCL Institute of Education Anthea Gulliford, University of Nottingham Nicola Pitchford, University of Nottingham

Educational maths apps are increasingly popular in young children’s early learning experiences. When available in multiple languages, maths apps can offer the opportunity for learning in the child’s first or preferred language. High-quality maths apps have the potential to increase access to education and boost achievement outcomes, as reflected in the England’s Department for Education’s EdTech strategy (DfE, 2019). However, technology alone will not lead to success. To understand ‘what works’ in the use of educational maths apps we need to consider factors that may impact children’s learning outcomes (Outhwaite, Gulliford, & Pitchford, 2019). This research focusses on children’s proficiency in the language of instruction.

‘Young bilingual children who used the apps made significant gains in mathematical achievement, but those with stronger proficiencies in the language of instruction made significantly more progress than those with lower language proficiencies.’

In our new study published in the British Journal of Educational Technology (Outhwaite, Gulliford, & Pitchford, 2020), we found young bilingual children who used the maths apps Maths 3–5 and Maths 4–6 (developed by onebillion, an award-winning not-for-profit organisation), in their first (Brazilian Portuguese) or second language (English), made significant gains in mathematical achievement. While there was no significant difference between using the apps in Brazilian Portuguese or English, we did find that children with stronger proficiencies in the language of instruction made significantly more progress compared to children with lower language proficiencies. This evidence suggests that these educational maths apps can offer a valuable learning opportunity, and corroborates previous research with children of a similar age in the UK (Outhwaite, Faulder, Gulliford, & Pitchford., 2018) and Malawi (Pitchford, Chigeda, & Hubber, 2019).

This pilot study was conducted in a bilingual school in Recife, Brazil, with 61 children aged between five and six. Children used the maths apps for 20 minutes per day, four times a week for 10 weeks. The maths apps included topics on number, shape, space and measure. We measured children’s mathematical abilities before and after the 10 weeks with the Early Grade Mathematics Assessment, an internationally developed and standardised assessment of mathematics attainment. Children’s language proficiencies in Brazilian Portuguese (their first language) and English (their second language) were assessed with a questionnaire designed specifically for this study and completed by their teachers.

What does this mean for parents and teachers?

For teachers and parents thinking about using educational maths apps with their children it will be useful to consider the individual child’s language abilities. For example, can they effectively understand and access this content? Is there the option of using the apps in the child’s stronger language? Observing the child’s initial and continuing interactions with the maths apps will help inform this and enable the best curriculum support and scaffolding of app use.

The use of educational maths apps in different languages may be particularly beneficial for children with English as an additional language (EAL) who may be struggling with mathematics. Current research at the University of Nottingham, led by Professor Nicola Pitchford, is examining whether interleaving the implementation of these maths apps in the child’s first and second languages can benefit young EAL children, including those newly arrived in the UK. This research will shed more light onto best practices surrounding educational maths apps.

What does this mean for app developers?

Good educational maths apps need to consider the role of children’s language development in their design features. To our knowledge, this is the first study to apply theories of bilingual learning to maths app design. For example, we observed that the maths apps provided good levels of contextual support, through matching auditory and visual information, interactive pictures, audio and animations, combined with an on-screen teacher providing clear task demonstrations and step-by-step instructions. However, we also noted that the apps may have required vocabulary beyond some children’s current knowledge. This may have limited the progress of children with weaker proficiencies in the language of instruction. To improve access, educational maths apps could further incorporate context-embedded communication, such as supportive and concrete cues.


This blog post is based on the article ‘Language counts when learning mathematics with interactive apps‘ by Laura Outhwaite, Andrea Gulliford and Nicola Pitchford, which is published on an open access basis in the British Journal of Educational Technology


References

Department for Education [DfE]. (2019). Realising the Potential of Technology in Education. London. Retrieved from https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/realising-the-potential-of-technology-in-education

Outhwaite, L.A., Faulder, M., Gulliford, A. & Pitchford, N. J. (2018). Raising early achievement in math with interactive apps: A randomized control trial. Journal of Educational Psychology, 111(2), 284–298.

Outhwaite, L. A., Gulliford, A. & Pitchford, N. J. (2019). A new methodological approach for evaluating the impact of educational intervention implementation on learning outcomes. International Journal of Research & Method in Education. Advance online publication. http://doi.org/10.1080/1743727X.2019.1657081

Outhwaite, L. A., Gulliford, A., & Pitchford, N. J. (2020). Language counts when learning mathematics with interactive apps. British Journal of Educational Technology. Advance online publication. http://doi.org/10.1111/bjet.12912

Pitchford, N. J., Chigeda, A., & Hubber, P. J. (2019). Interactive apps prevent gender discrepancies in early grade mathematics in a low-income country in Sub-Sahara Africa. Developmental Science, 22(5). http://doi.org/10.1111/desc.12864