Parents, Talk to Your Kids About Math Before It’s Too Late

By Sarah D. Sparks — November 12, 2010 2 min read
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Researchers and policymakers have urged parents for years to read to their young children, even infants, to help them develop better vocabulary and reading readiness. Now, a new study by the University of Chicago suggests parents should be talking to their toddlers about numbers, too.

The study, “What Counts in the Development of Young Children’s Number Knowledge?,” in the current issue of Developmental Psychology, suggests there are big differences in the amount of number-related words parents use in regular conversation with their children, and this can have a big effect on a child’s numeracy, even before formal number instruction in preschool.

Susan C. Levine, a psychologist at the University of Chicago, and a team of researchers found toddlers whose parents talked with them frequently about numbers were better able to understand one of the foundation principles of early math: the cardinal number principle, i.e., the understanding that the number “six” represents a set of six items. According to researchers, children learn the abstract meaning of a given number separately from simply learning to count to that number.

The team studied 44 preschool children interacting with their parents during everyday activities in five 90-minute taped home visits conducted every four months from the time the children were 14 to 30 months old. The researchers then coded the number of times a parent used a number-related word, such as pointing to a series of toys on the floor and saying, “There are four trucks.”

Researchers found parents wildly varied in the amount of number-related words they used around their children, from as few as four to as many as 257 &mdash which would translate to a range of 28 to 1,799 number-related words used per week between the most and least vocal parents. Moreover, Ms. Levine’s team found children whose parents used more number words in discussions when the child was 14 to 30 months old were more likely at 46 months old, or just at preschool age, to be able to answer accurately when shown two sets of four and five blocks and asked to point out the set of five.

“By the time children enter preschool, there are marked individual differences in their mathematical knowledge, as shown by their performance on standardized tests,” Ms. Levine said in a statement on the study. “These findings suggest that encouraging parents to talk about numbers with their children, and providing them with effective ways to do so, may positively impact children’s school achievement.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.