Empowering preschool children with the language of math adds up to stronger skills

October 11, 2016 by Amy Patterson Neubert, Purdue University
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

Teaching preschool children simple math-related vocabulary and concepts, such as "more," "a lot," "some" and "fewer," improves their mathematical skills, according to a new a study from Purdue University.

"This approach is not new, but we believe this is the first study to show that intentionally teaching and exposing young children to such language concepts makes a difference in their ability to learn basic ," said David Purpura, an assistant professor of human development and family studies. "We found that when children were read stories with age-appropriate and pictures, and then discussed these specific concepts in small groups, they scored higher on math tests for not just these specific words, but also math skills that were not covered in the books."

The results are published in the Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness.

Mathematical language is one of the strongest predictors of children's early mathematical success, so Purpura wanted to determine how effective early exposure to mathematical language could be for children ages 3-5.

Forty-seven Head Start participated in the study, and half of them met three times each week in small groups to be read one of six books. Each book emphasized an average of 38 quantitative or spatial language concepts through its storyline, pictures and the questions that were asked.

The other children proceeded with their regular teaching curriculum. Eight weeks later all children were tested, and those exposed to the math language and those exposed to the math language concepts outperformed the others on math-specific language as well as math skills. Even though children who participated in the reading groups were not directly taught math concepts such as counting or adding, their skills in these areas improved more than the skills of children who didn't participate in the reading groups.

"Exposure to math language opens the door to learning and understanding these important early math skills," Purpura said. "It's difficult to ask a child to compare quantities if they don't know what 'more' or 'fewer' means. If they can understand 'before' and 'after,' they are more likely to know, or be able to understand, what number comes after three. When children learn this language in a math context, it acts as a springboard to learn about other mathematical concepts."

The intervention was more than just reading a book with mathematical concepts and pictures, Purpura said. The readers also were trained to comment on items related to mathematical language as they read the book, and then ask the specific questions. For example, "How do we know the girl has more than the boy?" or "Is the bird above or below the tree?" There was no direct instruction on counting, number naming or related math skills.

The six books used in this study were "Many is How Many?" by Illa Podendorf," Albert is Not Scared" by Eleanor May," Just Enough Carrots" by Stuart J. Murphy, "Rosie's Walk" by Pat Hutchins, "Albert's Bigger than Big Idea" by Eleanor May and "Little White Rabbit" by Kevin Henkes. Purpura collaborated with Purdue graduate students Amy R. Napoli, Elizabeth A. Wehrspann and Zachary S. Gold.

Explore further: "Math disability" may reflect problems in a crucial learning system in the brain

More information: David J. Purpura et al. Causal Connections Between Mathematical Language and Mathematical Knowledge: A Dialogic Reading Intervention, Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness (2016). DOI: 10.1080/19345747.2016.1204639

Related Stories

"Math disability" may reflect problems in a crucial learning system in the brain

September 15, 2016
Children differ substantially in their mathematical abilities. In fact, some children cannot routinely add or subtract, even after extensive schooling. Yet the causes of these problems are not fully understood. Now, two researchers, ...

Spanish-speaking parents can improve children's English skills through reading and doing math in Spanish

August 11, 2016
Most U.S. school teachers instruct only in English; yet, the number of students from homes where a non-English language is spoken is expected to double by the year 2030, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. ...

Spatial, written language skills predict math competence

October 22, 2013
Early math skills are emerging as important to later academic achievement. As many countries seek to strengthen their workforces in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields, understanding the early ...

Brain study suggests neural networks related to mathematics are different from those used for language

April 12, 2016
(Medical Xpress)—A pair of researchers with Université Paris-Sud and Université Paris-Saclay has found via fMRI human brain studies that the neural networks used to process mathematics are different from those that are ...

Recommended for you

Antidepressants are more effective than placebo at treating acute depression in adults, concludes study

February 22, 2018
Meta-analysis of 522 trials includes the largest amount of unpublished data to date, and finds that antidepressants are more effective than placebo for short-term treatment of acute depression in adults.

Smartphones are bad for some teens, not all

February 21, 2018
Is the next generation better or worse off because of smartphones? The answer is complex and research shows it largely depends on their lives offline.

Researchers uncover novel mechanism behind schizophrenia

February 21, 2018
An international team of researchers led by a Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine scientist has uncovered a novel mechanism in which a protein—neuregulin 3—controls how key neurotransmitters are released ...

Self-compassion may protect people from the harmful effects of perfectionism

February 21, 2018
Relating to oneself in a healthy way can help weaken the association between perfectionism and depression, according to a study published February 21, 2018 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Madeleine Ferrari from Australian ...

How people cope with difficult life events fuels development of wisdom, study finds

February 21, 2018
How a person responds to a difficult life event such as a death or divorce helps shape the development of their wisdom over time, a new study from Oregon State University suggests.

When it comes to our brains, there's no such thing as normal

February 20, 2018
There's nothing wrong with being a little weird. Because we think of psychological disorders on a continuum, we may worry when our own ways of thinking and behaving don't match up with our idealized notion of health. But ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.