A new study by Pennsylvania State University researchers examines which types of instructional practices are most effective with first-grade math students—both with and without mathematical difficulties (MD).

They analyzed survey responses from roughly 3,600 teachers and data from over thirteen thousand kindergarten children in the class of 1998–99. The database is known as the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (ECLS). The authors then controlled for students’ prior math and reading achievement, family income, classroom and school contexts, and other factors. (MD was defined as falling in the bottom 15 percent of the score distribution on the ECLS-K Math test.)

The key findings: In first-grade classrooms with higher percentages of MD students, teachers were more likely to use practices not associated with greater math achievement by these students. These non-effective practices included using manipulatives, calculators, movement, and music to learn math. It should be noted that these practices were also ineffective for students without math difficulties.

Yet more frequent use of teacher-directed instructional practices was consistently associated with gains in math achievement for first graders with MD. More specifically, the most effective instructional practice teachers could use with these struggling students was routine practice and drills (that’s right, drill and kill!). Similarly, lots of chalkboard instruction, traditional textbook practice problems, and worksheets that went over math skills and concepts were also effective with them.

For students without MD, teacher-directed instruction was also associated with gains—but so were some other types of student-centered instruction, defined as giving students opportunities to be actively involved in generating math knowledge. These practices included working on problems with several solutions, peer tutoring, and activities involving “real-life” math problems.

Youngsters who struggle with math simply need their teachers to show them how to do the math and then practice themselves how to do it—a lot! Why is such instruction so hard for them to come by?

SOURCE: Paul L. Morgan, George Farkas, and Steve Maczuga, "Which Instructional Practices Most Help First-Grade Students With and Without Mathematics Difficulties?," Education Evaluation and Policy Analysis vol. 37 no. 2 (June 2015).

Amber Northern is senior vice president for research at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, where she supervises the Institute’s studies and research staff.  She has published in the areas of educational accountability, principal leadership, teacher quality, and academic standards, among others. Prior to joining Fordham, she served as senior study director at Westat. In that role, she provided evaluation services…

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