Notes on Parenting

Insights for parenting babies, toddlers, teens, and young adults.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Improving Children's Number Sense


With many kids heading back to school soon, parents’ attention is once again turning to academic issues. For many children, math is one of the harder subjects to master. It’s easy to see why—math deals with abstract concepts and many times requires kids to transfer information on the page into mental images. However, recent research is showing the continued importance of early math concepts to children’s future learning and achievement in math. One study looked at children as young as kindergarten and found that their understanding of basic math concepts predicted math achievement years later (through 5th grade). Some of these foundations concepts included skills like being able to estimate a given number on a number line of 0 to 100. Students who were able to master such skills in first grade were much more likely to grown rapidly in the math knowledge in the years following. The researchers proposed that the primary reason for this is that if these foundational math skills are not mastered, children can easily fall behind and it is difficult to catch up.

I’m sure a study like this is enough to strike fear into the hearts of many parents. If math skills begin in kindergarten, how can we help our preschoolers, and even toddlers, start to grasp the concept of numbers and math?

Another very interesting study sheds some light on this question. Stanford University researchers examined whether the way we use language to explain numbers may have some influence on how very young children come to understand them. They found that it was more beneficial for number learning if the number was said after the object it describes, rather than the other way around. For example, we typically say, “look, there are 3 chairs,” but it is more helpful for understanding numbers to say, “look at those chairs; there are 3.” This all has to do with the way the brain is trained to learn by expectation. Once the chair is the focus of attention, the child comes to expect that numbers relate to it. Using this method of number description, 3 year-old children in the study were able to increase their number recognition by 30%.

All parents want their children to succeed in school and math is a substantial part of their school experience. Unfortunately, math can be somewhat anxiety-provoking as well. It is helpful to know that researchers are continuing to examine ways that parents and teachers can help children learn math in more effective ways.

Here's to a great school year ahead!

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