Scientists Reveal How Kids Learn Math


Written by Veronika Bradley, Editor for Children's Health and Safety Association – August 18, 2013 and Republished by Diligencia Investigative Reporting – April 2019

University of Missouri researchers have discovered that fundamental math skills are much more than just the children's ability to count numbers, but an understanding whereby they continually progress and have the ability to transfer their conceptual knowledge to other areas of their lives. 

Researchers tested first-graders’ 'number system knowledge' to see how well they understood items in groups of numbers, for example, 3 apples = 3 and 4 dots = 4 and 2 stars = 2.  First Grade children who had a difficult time understanding the concept of 'numbers representing different quantities' received lower scores on math tests years later in their 7th grade.  

Just as babies learn to talk and children learn to read scientists have discovered the rudimentary building blocks of math.  How well children grasp the concept of numbers at an early age will dictate how well they do in their future years.  Scientists are in the process of developing steps that parents can take to increase their child's ability in comprehending 'number system knowledge'.

About 20% of adults in the United States lack the mathematical competence that is expected of a child in middle school, therefore, they would not only have trouble understanding ordinary tasks but also not qualify for many of our current jobs.  

Dr. David Geary, a cognitive psychologist who tracked children from kindergarten to high school in the Columbia, Missouri school system for this study stated, "The gap they started with, they don't close it," – meaning that they're not catching up to the kids who understood the concept in 1st Grade.  Dr. Geary is presently working on another study to see if children in preschool learn something that gives them an advantage.

'Number System Knowledge' includes:

  • Understanding that numbers represent different quantities: 5 balls = the number 5
  • Grasping magnitude: 36 is a larger number than 23 and 7 is greater than 6
  • Understanding numbers can be broken into parts: 7 is the same as 3+4 and 5+2 and 1+6
  • Understanding the difference between 10 and 12 is the same as the difference between 20 and 22

Dr. Kathy Mann Koepke from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development stated there is other evidence that mathematics matters early in life.  Young babies and a variety of animals use their intuitiveness to estimate numbers without counting.  This is the same ability that lets you choose the shortest grocery checkout line at a glance or guides a bird to the bush with the most berries.  Dr. Koepke stated that children who start elementary school without understanding these concepts seem to struggle enormously; therefore, new findings suggest the need to intervene at a much earlier age.  Presently schools focus on mathematical problems around 3rd grade and discover math learning disabilities by 5th grade.

Scientists have long known that preschoolers who know their alphabet letters and know the sounds those letters make, advance their reading skills with relative ease.  In mathematics, children need to not only know numbers, but numbers in relation to words as well. 

Dave Didur, a retired Secondary Math Educator with the Board of Education in Hamilton, Ontario stated, “Parents are thrilled when they realize that their child has made the discovery that things have names.  ‘What’s that?!  What’s that?!”  This association between the names of things and words is the same principle that we want kids to develop at an early age between the quantity of things and numbers.”

Here are some helpful teaching tips for parents from Dr. Mann Koepke.

Don't teach your toddler to count solely by reciting numbers but attach numbers to a noun so they will understand the quantity concept as well. For example, "Here are 5 crayons. One crayon.  Two crayons…"  "We need to put 4 apples in the bowl.  One apple.  Two apples.  Three apples.  Four apples."

Talk about distance. How many steps will it take to reach the garden gate? Count the steps.

Describe shapes. An ellipse is round like a circle but flatter. A rectangle is like a square but wider.

Show children your methodical process when you make change or measure ingredients for a recipe.

Talk to your children about magnitude, numbers, distance, shapes as soon as you can. It will prove to be a positive influence on your child's brain function and increase their curiosity.



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