One College of Education & Human Sciences (COEHS) Research Professor has just completed a remarkable stretch of research, and isn’t stopping there.

H. Lee Swanson is continuing his work he began at the University of California. As an expert in educational psychology and special education, his area of focus has been on children who struggle in math and related academic areas and the role that working memory may play. 

Swanson along with his colleague Dr. Stefania Petcu are beginning a new bout of study to further understand the cognitive processes which may hinder monolingual and English language learners when it comes to improving math performance. 

“There hadn't been much work done on the learning which involves the second language and its relationship to learning math and reading. It's kind of a confusing area when you deal with English language learners because you have a hard time coming up with measures that accurately capture their performance, so that's kind of what got me interested in this particular research,” Swanson said.

Although English language learners bring many assets and strengths to the task of quantitative reasoning and problem-solving, some of these children experience difficulties in math, especially with word problems. That is because math word problems require complex processes beyond basic math skills (computation), such as reading comprehension, the use of linguistic information, identifying relevant information, and constructing the appropriate problem statement. 

His undertaking began in 2017 thanks to over $2 million in funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF.) Swanson wanted to analyze math scores in Spanish-speaking students who are also English learners, and why the low performance may be impacted by challenges in working memory.

“In terms of national testing, children who come to the United States who are English learners, but have Spanish as a first language lag behind other minority groups. Part of the difficulty is they don't have good measures to tap what kids are processing; they can't separate difficulties in English acquisition from difficulties in learning,” Swanson said.

Finding and understanding that separation is key, and is where working memory has a direct impact. Educational psychology, Swanson’s field of expertise, prepared him for that.

“We're trying to understand the problems in learning and separate that from language acquisition. The second language is a different variable in kids who have learning problems and need intervention,” he said. “You can be an English language learner, and have also experienced difficulties in learning, and have a disability in math, for example.“

Over the course of five years, Swanson studied hundreds of English language learners as they engaged in math problems, at the first, second and third grade levels. Naturally, he understood children would exhibit problems with cross-language transfer and reading skills, but wanted to show that working memory plays an equally important role.

In general, children with higher levels of working memory proficiency tend to do well on mathematical word problem-solving measures. Despite knowing the importance of working memory to math performance, little research has included emergent bilingual children (i.e., English learners) who experience math difficulties and whose first language is Spanish.

Working memory is” different from a memory where I had to remember the time or a telephone number. This memory is where you have mental juggling of information and multitasking,” Swanson said. “It's like if you hear a story and you've got to remember the

sequence of events and also what the story means, so you have two kinds of activities going on there. You've got to get the sequence of events because you've got to recall it, but you also have to do an interpretive part of it.”

H Swanson

It’s clearly not just a simple game of rote memorization. Swanson wanted to assess the role of specific knowledge, executive processing and phonological memory in both Spanish and English. He found all of those things had trouble coming together in word-based math problems. Think: Mary had 2 books at home. She went to the library to take out 2 more books. She then bought 1 book. How many books does Mary have now?

“That doesn't mean their memory is flawed. It just means in those particular areas they have difficulty. Math word problems are much more complex and kids have to deal with a lot of information,” Swanson said. “The key thing is you have to teach them what is important information and what's irrelevant information. It's that separation that we focused on–that multitasking memory and working memory.”

Once he could understand if an improvement in working memory could be linked to an improvement in math problem solving, he could begin to figure out further solutions for a classroom.

“We find kids can get the calculation down pretty well. They can do the algorithm, but when it gets to a word problem, they're just a lot more processes involved besides just computation. They have to decide what to take into consideration,” Swanson said.

“When you go to the grocery store and you have to buy something, you usually have an oral transaction of some type, you have a computation, you have relevant, other neural information. That’s why we’re looking at working memory in problem solving.” – COEHS Research Professor H. Lee Swanson

Swanson emphasizes understanding what working memory is and why it’s so important to set kids up in a good place before they get too old.

“When we teach kids word problems we always try to give them the core. You know, you had three marbles. You had four marbles. How many marbles did they have all together? That’s a very simple syntax, but in fact, that's not the kind of problem these kids have. It's when you add more information to it,” he said.

The cross-sectional design also involved monitoring the kids in a classroom. Bilingual graduate students watched the learning process first-hand, both through instruction and retention.

“We worked on measures in English and Spanish, while observing instruction each year of the project. We put our data together and analyzed it and came up with what we thought were some key areas that play a positive role in predicting how kids are going to do,” Swanson said.

It became clear as Swanson dove into the data, math, cognitive, language and behavioral outcomes are linked to classroom observations of math instructional activities.

“That kind of memory is what we found is a key part of predicting how kids are going to do on mathematical word problems. Kids did pretty well in terms of development and computation,” he said. “Reading scores went up, but when it got to math word problems, that memory system played a very predictive role, not just through vocabulary. Vocabulary certainly is a part of math but it wasn't the key area that we found that predicted overall scores.”

None of it could be attributed to the teachers themselves, either. The word problems containing mathematical elements, and a lack of English-speaking comprehension had an impact on working memory, and therefore, grades and success.

“The problems aren’t really related to just teaching. We found very good teaching and best practices and scores improved from year to year. In predicting how kids are going to do, we found that in contrast to what was expected, reading and vocabulary weren’t as important as some of the cognitive processes,” Swanson said.

This is connected to Swanson’s other recent analysis, in which he joined a fellow co-author at the University of Kansas to study this same cognitive process in English learners, but with writing. Also across hundreds of elementary-schoolers, English writing performance and cognition were linked; when cognitive skills increased, so did grades. When English-learners appeared to struggle in that same trajectory, it became clear working memory capacity was especially key.

“You can study memory development theoretically and you can come up with different models, but when you get into the educational context, you have to deal with what's practical. In terms of high-stakes tests, it becomes very important. We can identify some of the areas within the practical part of it and do something about that,“ Swanson said.

Now that the connection has been linked, Swanson is working to establish possible strategies and interventions to assist working memory-related issues for English language learners.  His work has been linked to previous grants with the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) focusing on monolingual children with math difficulties, but now is focusing on support from IES on children who are English language learners who experience math difficulties.

“We've identified some of the areas that account for those learning difficulties in second language learners, and then what we're trying to do is come up with an intervention that can deal with that.” Swanson said. ”There's a good theoretical background, a good model of memory and we can take it and look at it and see if it sort of shows itself within the context of the classroom.”

This will largely center on that search for keywords, within problems, to better assist 400 English-learning students in third, fourth and fifth grades.

“The word problems sort of build on the working memory demands. You might have a problem with four sentences, and one of the sentences is completely irrelevant to solving the problem. Once you master that you go to the next, when you add additional irrelevant information, additional irrelevant sentences,” Swanson said.

Swanson emphasizes that the district itself, the funding and the politics of it all can play an unsung role. Still, he knows the independent, unbiased work he is conducting and has conducted, can eventually make a difference in schools everywhere.

“It's the million dollar question–how can we improve working memory? Our intervention is different from the way schools do it in the curriculum, but we think within the curriculum we can make some changes to test out,” he said. “We have found some things in our past intervention studies that can raise performance in monolingual children. We've done that.”