Instructional practices may need to change to boost first-grade math outcomes

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – First-grade teachers in the U.S. may need to change their classroom instructional practices if they are to increase the achievement of students struggling with mathematics, according to Paul Morgan, associate professor of education, Penn State.

Morgan and his co-investigators examined how instructional practices used by first grade teachers in the U.S. were associated with mathematics achievement gains by their students, including those with and without prior histories of mathematics difficulties (MD). Instructional practices were grouped as relatively more traditional, teacher-directed activities versus relatively less traditional, student-centered activities. These effects for practice types were corrected for confounding factors, including children’s family income, race/ethnicity and prior academic achievement in both reading and mathematics. The researchers reported their results in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis.

The study’s findings indicated that first grade teachers in the U.S. were more likely to be using student-centered practices when leading classrooms with higher percentages of students with MD. These less traditional activities included using calculators, movement and music to teach mathematics to first grade students with MD.

These less traditional practices were not associated with achievement gains in mathematics, either for students with or without MD. Instead, only traditional, teacher-directed practices resulted in achievement gains for students with MD. Example activities included using textbooks, worksheets, and practice and drill on mathematical content. For students without MD, both teacher-directed practices and student-centered practices were linked to student achievement. Student-centered practices included working on problems with several solutions, peer tutoring and activities involving real life examples.

“Our results suggest that first-grade teachers in the U.S. may be mismatching their classroom instruction to the learning needs of students with MD,” said Morgan. “This is surprising and troubling, given both our own findings and prior research indicating that students with MD benefit more from explicit, teacher-directed instruction, particularly for those students persistently struggling to learn mathematics.”

Prior studies have reported on instructional practices that may be more effective in increasing reading achievement for those with and without reading difficulties. Relatively little research, however, has focused on instructional practices that are effective in increasing mathematics achievement of students with and without MD. 

Morgan’s and colleagues’ study analyzed survey responses from 3,635 teachers and 13,393 children who participated in the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Class of 1998-99, a nationally representative dataset maintained by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics.

Collaborating on the study’s analyses were George Farkas, professor of education, University of California, Irvine and former professor of sociology at Penn State, and Steve Maczuga, research programmer at Penn State’s Population Research Institute.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Institute for Education Sciences provided direct funding through an infrastructure grant from the National Institutes of Health to Penn State’s Population Research Institute.

The publication is available at

Last Updated July 28, 2017