Early exposure to basic math concepts is vital to avoid innumeracy later on, Missouri study says

Published: Monday, Feb. 18 2013 12:30 p.m. MST

Spotting and correcting math deficits in time can yield big benefits according to Geary's 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 for poor school performance because of poverty and other social disadvantages.

But in recent decades, attention on education's "Three Rs" — reading, writing and arithmetic — has focused sharply on the first two Rs to the exclusion of 'rithmetic during early school grades.

"A lot has been done to focus on reading skills of at-risk kids," Geary said. "And, a lot has been focused on math and science, but that's been largely about getting people ready for college math. Kids who are not going to college still need to have jobs, but they've fallen through the cracks. They need literacy skills, but also need to have quantitative skills — and that need will only go up as society becomes more technology-dependent."

The findings of the new study mesh with, and expand upon, conclusions drawn in a 2012 report co-authored by Chris Cain, a mathematics consultant to the U.S. Department of Education. It said grouping larger numbers into smaller sets makes them easier for the human brain to manage — the reason that long telephone numbers are broken into smaller sets by dashes.

Laying foundations

Mathematical concepts are built one upon another in a logical, step-wise progression, Cain said. If early foundations are shaky, students will make slow progress thereafter. So, kids who are pushed toward learning addition and multiplication before they understand the relationships between numerals and quantities will simply memorize math facts.

Memorizing multiplication tables isn't a bad thing, but children who don't comprehend the processes behind adding and multiplying are likely to have problems in math that show up later. When that happens, intervention is valuable — even if it isn't immediate, according to Cain's research.

"If a student doesn't have great (number understanding) early on, there are still things we can do to help that child catch up through intensive intervention that focuses on what's missing," he said.

Like Geary, Cain feels that the sustained emphasis in the United States on reading well in early grades should be matched by equal efforts to build childrens' numeracy skills as early as possible. Better teacher training is the place to start, he said, noting that teacher preparation programs in U.S. colleges focus on building teachers' math knowledge, but put too little emphasis on teaching them how to impart that knowledge to students.

"I've been in lots of classrooms where the teacher knew how to do the math, but should never have been turned loose with a whiteboard and marker," he said.

Parent helps

A 2008 report by the National Mathematics Advisory Panel included recommendations for ways parents can help young children succeed in math after they enter school. Those include:

    • Introduce babies and toddlers 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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