Small children often amaze their parents when they first say, “one, two, three...” And as it turns out, this is a pretty good indication of what's to come.
Preschoolers who both know how to recite the numbers and demonstrate ability to count objects will fare better in math as they grow older, according to new research from the University of Missouri.
“Obviously, memorizing number words is the first step,” Louis Manfra, an assistant professor in MU’s Department of Human Development and Family Studies, tells TakePart. “Memorizing their chronological order is the next step. Associating these numbers with objects one-to-one is the next step. And, understanding that the last number stated in a set is the amount of the set (the cardinality principle) is the next step.”
“It seems easy to adults, but like learning language skills and grammar, it takes a long time,” he continues. “Children who know the number words at younger ages and learn the chronology at younger ages—that is, reciting—are in a position where they can learn one-to-one correspondence between number words and objects and the cardinality principle much easier.”
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Curious about the correlation between small children’s grasp of numbers and their later math prowess, Dr. Manfra studied data from over 3,000 low-income children in Florida. He looked at their number counting and recitation abilities in preschool and then compared it to their math scores in first grade. The children who, as preschoolers, could recite and count to 20 had higher scores later.
“Counting gives children stronger foundations when they start school,” Manfra said in an MU press release about the study. “The skills children have when they start kindergarten affect their trajectories through early elementary school; therefore, it’s important that children start with as many skills as possible.”
What is troubling, though, is that less than 10 percent of the 3,000 children Dr. Manfra studied had this counting skill in preschool. “The problem we saw was that these children were just starting to learn everything in a very short period of time prior to kindergarten,” he tells TakePart. “The other problem we saw was that some teachers did not seem to appreciate the importance of learning to count objects and simply recited the number words in chronological order with the children. This is not sufficient for children to learn to count objects.”
He also believes this low percentage is because low-income parents tend to leave teaching to teachers, and the teachers assume these skills have been taught at home. Therefore, sometimes an essential skill like counting gets left behind.
“These low-income children aren’t learning math skills anywhere because parents think the children are learning them at school, and teachers think they’re learning them at home,” Dr. Manfra explained in the release. “This is a problem because it gives parents and teachers the idea that it’s not their responsibility to educate the children, when it’s everyone’s responsibility. This is problematic because, when the children enter kindergarten and are at lower math levels, they don’t have the foundational skills needed to set them on paths for future success.”
Of course, studies have shown that a quality preschool in disadvantaged communities greatly improve children’s lives. A study published in 2006 showed that children who attended quality preschools not only did better in school later on; they also tended to avoid crime and drugs and fare better socioeconomically as adults.
If preschool teachers and parents could increase their counting instruction in daily activities—by encouraging children to count pictures they see in books or the rocks they find out on a walk—they could further bump up the quality of a low-income child’s education by giving them the foundation for vital math skills.
“It is up to every adult in children’s daily lives to provide children with these and other skills,” Dr. Manfra tells TakePart. “If parents don’t do it and the preschools don’t do it, who will? We will have far too many children who lack basic early math skills entering kindergarten and falling behind their peers quickly. And this is what we saw in this study. Children from low-income backgrounds are particularly vulnerable to these patterns.”
“Many advocates believe the quality of preschool is the area that we can make the largest impact because it is easier to change preschool curricula and quality then it is to change the way parents choose to parent,” he says. “Unfortunately, it seems that changing preschools can only do so much; home learning environments are highly important for the acquisition of skills.”
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Kristin Kloberdanz is a freelance writer based in the San Francisco Bay area. She has written for Time, the Chicago Tribune and Forbes.com about everything from economic crises and political snafus to best summer beach reads.