Opinion
Early Childhood Commentary

Math Matters, Even for Little Kids

By Deborah Stipek, Alan Schoenfeld & Deanna Gomby — March 27, 2012 6 min read

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.

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

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