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Success in math starts early: New study shows kids who are behind in first grade don't catch up

Published: Thursday, Feb. 14 2013 11:30 a.m. MST

A new study shows that understanding of numbers must start early — before first grade is best.

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One in five adults in the U.S. can’t do basic arithmetic problems such as adding fractions, working with measurements and doing whole number arithmetic problems, according to a new study about how math skills develop. More precisely, 22 percent of adult Americans are functionally “innumerate” — a word that sums up the inability to do math problems like the word “illiterate” describes lack of reading and writing skills. These millions of innumerate people don’t have the basic math skills for most modern jobs, including the low-level jobs open to people without college degrees.

The study, by mathematics researchers David C. Geary, Mary K. Hoard, Lara Nugent and Drew H. Bailey, found that before entering first grade, children need to understand that written numerals represent quantities. They also need to be able to solve simple arithmetic problems using methods other than counting. Children who don’t grasp the meaning of numerals and how to work with them before they enter first grade will fall behind their peers in math achievement, and most won’t catch up as years go by, the longitudinal study found.

“The analyses thus far indicate that children who begin first grade with low number system knowledge are at heightened risk for low functional numeracy scores in seventh grade,” the authors wrote.

It is especially important that young children develop the ability to arrange numbers in order of magnitude, and to combine or break them down into smaller and larger numerals — to recognize, for instance, that “nine” is the same quantity as four and five, seven and two, or eight and one. The presence of this ability at the beginning of first grade — called “number system knowledge” — was found to be more important in predicting a child’s likelihood of attaining basic math skills than improvements in math ability that happen in later grades.

Students who don’t gain basic number knowledge before first grade will continue to fall behind in math — and that is true even after statistical adjustments for differences in basic intelligence, working memory, attentive behavior, low-income status and ethnicity.

Spotting math deficits early and providing remediation can yield big benefits according to the study, which was supported by a grant from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. The findings underscore the importance of expertly taught preschool and kindergarten math curricula, especially for children who are at risk of poor school performance because of poverty and other social disadvantages.

“For now, the implication is that interventions to improve children’s early understanding of the relations among numerals need to be implemented before the start of schooling or in first grade, and fortunately such interventions are being developed,” its authors wrote.

A 2008 report from the National Mathematics Advisory Panel studied foundations for student success in mathematics, and included recommendations for parents that can help children succeed in math after they enter school. Those include:

Introduce your baby and toddler to numbers, counting and shapes.

Before kindergarten, help your child understand phrases related to math, such as “more than,” “less than” and “equal to.”

Do activities in counting, and in joining (adding) and separating (subtracting) objects.

Show your child that you value math achievement, even if you feel you are not good at math.

Help your child understand that being good at math is about working hard, not about being born "smart."

EMAIL: cbaker@deseretnews.com

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