Early Childhood Opinion

Math Matters, Even for Little Kids

By Deborah Stipek, Alan Schoenfeld & Deanna Gomby — March 27, 2012 6 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Everyone knows that children who are not reading at grade level by 3rd grade are fated to struggle academically throughout school. Concerns about early literacy skills are justified because reading skills at kindergarten entry predict later academic achievement.

But guess what predicts later academic success better than early reading? Early math skills. In “School Readiness and Later Achievement,” a widely cited 2007 study of large longitudinal data sets, University of California, Irvine, education professor Greg Duncan and his colleagues found that in a comparison of math, literacy, and social-emotional skills at kindergarten entry, “early math concepts, such as knowledge of numbers and ordinality, were the most powerful predictors of later learning.” A large-scale Canadian study from 2010 echoes those findings: Math skills at school entry predicted math skills and even reading skills in 3rd and 2nd grade, respectively, better than reading skills at school entry. Although the mechanisms underlying such associations are not yet understood, the importance of early mathematics, and thus of access to it for all students, is clear.

We have a long way to go. Vanderbilt University education professor Dale Farran reports in her recent study of preschool classrooms that math was intentionally taught by teachers only 2.5 percent of the day. Increasing the amount of time children spend engaged in instruction involving math conversation from 2 percent to only 4 percent led to significant math gains. Young children will take advantage of the opportunities we give them to develop their understanding of math.

The time is right for increasing our attention to early math. The K-12 common-core standards offer a clear and nearly universal target for the math skills U.S. children will need to master in the beginning elementary grades.

How do we create a pragmatic agenda to enhance children’s early mathematical experiences and prepare them for the standards-based math they will encounter when they enter school? We have a number of suggestions.

We need pre-K standards that are aligned with the common core, and having 50 states do that work independently is inefficient."

We urge states to create prekindergarten standards using the same collective strategy that produced the Common Core State Standards. We need pre-K standards that are aligned with the common core, and having 50 states do that work independently is inefficient. Common-core pre-K standards, developed by the nation’s best experts in early learning and child development, could serve as the backbone for efforts to develop greater alignment between children’s preschool and K-12 experiences. They could also guide policies on teacher preparation, curricula, and assessments of children and programs.

Increasing young children’s math learning opportunities will not come easily. If you think it is difficult to create broad-scale changes in K-12, try pre-K, where there is huge diversity in institutional contexts.

The education of preschool-age children occurs in Head Start, state preschools, family child-care homes, child-care centers, and public and private schools—each with its own sources of funding and management structures, and teaching staffs with varying levels of training and experience and persistently high rates of turnover.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle is getting past resistance to academically focused instruction in early-childhood settings. Some of the resistance is due to legitimate concerns about bringing K-12 accountability methods to preschool and using developmentally inappropriate methods to teach isolated skills. The resistance also reflects an assumption that attention to math will crowd the curriculum and result in less time for play, literacy activities, or social-emotional development.

To overcome these concerns, the field needs developmentally appropriate, child-friendly curricula and materials. Teacher training is needed to help early-childhood educators understand that learning is not a zero-sum game: Meaningful math activities in the context of play can foster crucial aspects of children’s development. The goals in math instruction are to build on what young children know in ways that children enjoy. For example, playing mathematical or strategy games such as Chutes and Ladders or tic-tac-toe can build math and problem-solving skills while also developing social skills (e.g., turn taking and cooperation), early-language skills, and cognitive self-regulation. Developing a solution to sharing a plate of cookies both builds rudimentary division skills and helps promote social skills.

The most commonly encountered activities in preschool are among the least effective for teaching children math. Learning to count by rote teaches children number words and their order, but it does not teach them number sense, any more than singing the letters L-M-N-O-P in the alphabet song teaches phonemic awareness. Knowing that “four” follows “three” is of minimal value if a child doesn’t know what “four” means. Paper-and-pencil tasks (e.g., drawing a line from the numeral 4 to a picture of four apples; coloring in an outline of the numeral 4) are fine for practice, but they don’t teach children a sense of number.

The goal of math instruction is to help children develop, discuss, and use efficient, accurate, and generalizable methods to solve mathematical problems. To achieve this goal, young children need problems to solve and latitude to construct their own strategies. Teaching math effectively requires a focus on children’s understanding of the core foundational concepts in mathematics. Such teaching can take place in the context of puzzles and games. Children using a shape sorter, for instance, learn the properties of geometric objects (e.g., three-sided or round figures don’t fit in four-sided holes), not simply their names.

Typical assessments of young children’s math understanding include a very limited number of math concepts, and children can often reach the right answer without genuine understanding. New instruments should be developed that assess critical early math concepts and also tap deep understanding. Summative assessments designed for program accountability should be supplemented with and aligned to formative assessments. All assessments should be developmentally appropriate in content and form. The purpose of assessment is to help identify what children know to help them build new knowledge. It is not appropriate to subject young children to extended formal testing.

Few early-childhood educators are prepared to teach math. For young children to have access to meaningful opportunities to learn math, new requirements for preschool teachers will need to be developed. Requirements should include opportunities to learn what is known about young children’s development related to mathematics, as well as strategies for assessing children’s understanding and teaching math to young children.

Increasing preservice requirements related to teaching math to young children will necessitate expanded offerings in institutions that provide preservice training. States should review the curriculum and training opportunities offered by two- and four-year colleges to ensure that students learn to teach mathematics effectively to young children. To support current preschool teachers, early-childhood programs should build internal capacity, such as by hiring coaches with expertise in teaching math to young children, or investing in the development of expertise in a teacher who can serve as a mentor to other teachers.

Mathematics has been neglected in educational settings for young children, but change is possible. The shift in recent years to focus on the importance of early literacy has successfully increased investment in reading and bolstered capacity among teachers and teaching institutions. That change began with research findings that demonstrated the importance of early reading and the strategies that can be implemented in homes and at schools to help children develop their reading skills. We need analogous concerted efforts to bring the importance of early math learning to the attention of policymakers, educators, and the public.

Related Tags:

A version of this article appeared in the March 28, 2012 edition of Education Week as Math Matters, Even for Little Kids


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Mathematics Webinar
Pave the Path to Excellence in Math
Empower your students' math journey with Sue O'Connell, author of “Math in Practice” and “Navigating Numeracy.”
Content provided by hand2mind
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Recruitment & Retention Webinar
Combatting Teacher Shortages: Strategies for Classroom Balance and Learning Success
Learn from leaders in education as they share insights and strategies to support teachers and students.
Content provided by DreamBox Learning
Classroom Technology K-12 Essentials Forum Reading Instruction and AI: New Strategies for the Big Education Challenges of Our Time
Join the conversation as experts in the field explore these instructional pain points and offer game-changing guidance for K-12 leaders and educators.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Early Childhood What the Research Says 6 Challenges for Early Educators as Preschool Growth Halts
School enrollment for the nation’s youngest learners has nosedived—and could cause long-term problems.
4 min read
Close crop of the back of a pre-school girl's head showing her playing with foam puzzle pieces of shapes and numbers.
Early Childhood What the Research Says Starting School in Infancy Can Help Low-Income Children Keep Up With Peers in Elementary School
Research on a birth-to-4 initiative in Tulsa finds academic gains through 3rd grade.
4 min read
Teacher Silvia Castillo, center, reads a book about dinosaurs with Everett Fisher, left, and Jaz Endicott in a toddler classroom at Kids First on Jan. 30, 2019 in Lincoln, Neb.
Teacher Silvia Castillo, center, reads a book about dinosaurs with Everett Fisher, left, and Jaz Endicott in a toddler classroom at Kids First on Jan. 30, 2019, in Lincoln, Neb.
Gwyneth Roberts/Lincoln Journal Star via AP
Early Childhood Why Parents 'Redshirt' Their Kids in Kindergarten
Parents have a number of reasons why they decide to delay their children's school entry, but it's not always a good idea.
5 min read
Students participate in a pre-kindergarten class at Alice M. Harte Charter School in New Orleans on Dec. 18, 2018. Charter schools, which are publicly funded and privately operated, are often located in urban areas with large back populations, intended as alternatives to struggling city schools.
Students participate in a pre-kindergarten class at Alice M. Harte Charter School in New Orleans on Dec. 18, 2018.
Gerald Herbert/AP
Early Childhood Q&A An Investment in Early-Childhood Education Is Paying Off Big
Richard Tomko believes that expanding the early education pipeline buffers schools against enrollment loss and academic struggles.
2 min read
Dr. Richard Tomko, Superintendent of Belleville Public Schools in Belleville, N.J., visits science teacher Paul Aiello’s Medical Academy Field Experience class on Tuesday, January 10, 2023. The Medical Academy’s class uses Anatamoge tables, an anatomy visualization system that allows students to garner a deeper, comprehensive understanding of the human body and medical tools to prepare them for careers in the medical field.
Richard Tomko, superintendent of Belleville Public Schools in Belleville, N.J., has expanded academic programs while restoring trust in the school system.
Sam Mallon/Education Week