Math Education: Start Early, Start Now

Because a high number of parents report feeling intimidated by math concepts we can assume that uncertainty and unease translates into a failure to routinely discuss math skills and concepts with their own young children.  Even parents not steeped in the technical details of reading comprehension and literacy development often spend time reading with their children; and informal literacy activities, e.g. asking a young child to sound out a word, look at an illustration for context clues, or pick their favorite book are a regular part of many parent’s nightly routines.  So it’s not surprising that math discussions and activities often get left behind.  As this recent article by Annie Paul makes clear, failure to introduce young minds to mathematical concepts at an early age can have serious impact on the student’s readiness to learn math skills later in life:

But speaking to them about numbers, fractions, and decimals? Not so much. And yet studies show that “number talk” at home is a key predictor of young children’s achievement in math once they get to school. Now a new study provides evidence that gender is part of the equation: Parents speak to their daughters about numbers far less than their sons…

The frequency of number talk in the children’s homes had a big impact on how well the youngsters understood basic mathematical concepts such as the cardinal number principle, which holds that the last number reached when counting a set of objects determines the size of the set (“One, two,
three—three apples in the bowl!”). A subsequent study by Levine found that the kind of number talk that most strongly predicted later knowledge of numbers involved counting or labeling sets of objects that are right there in front of parent and child–especially large sets, containing between four and ten objects.

Paul goes on to offer a set of helpful suggestions for introducing ‘number-talk’ early on in a child’s development and urges that parents attempt to incorporate number talk at least as often as they talk about words and letters:

  • Note numbers on signs when you’re walking or driving with children: speed limits and exit numbers, building addresses, sale prices in store windows.
  • Ask children to count how many toys they’re playing with, how many books they’ve pulled out to read, or how many pieces of food are on their plate.
  • Use numbers when you refer to time, dates, and temperatures: how many hours and minutes until bedtime, how many weeks and days until a holiday, the high and low the weatherman predicts for that day.
  • With older children, math can become a part of talking about sports, science, history, video games, or whatever else they’re interested in.

We couldn’t agree more.  Mathematics has received far less attention than literacy at both school and at home.  It’s our hope that parents will recognize the importance of numeracy and that lessons that important must start at home.

Creating a Mathematics Environment

Over at Math Hub, Jennifer Chintala, in Top 10 Ways to Strengthen Classroom Math Instruction,offers some strong tips for math educators.   Building on Chintala’s piece, I would go a step farther and add a short addendum to her first suggestion: Create a mathematics environment

An important strategy in strengthening mathematics instruction is establishing an environment where students are comfortable asking questions, undaunted by problem-solving activities, and secure in the belief that even some mistakes may have some redeeming instructional value.  A mathematics classroom should be non-threatening to all students. Their interaction and discussion about problem solving methods may often reveal alternative creative processes, processes and methods that may yield correct conclusions.  Alternative methods of solving problems offer opportunities for large-group or small-group discussions as to why certain methods work and others don’t.  Such dialogue is important for students to develop their understanding of numeracy, patterns, logic, and spatial reasoning.

In the same way that  adults learn through mistakes, students discover important facts through trial and error and discussion.  A mathematics educator that provides students with time for reflection on arithmetic processes and patterns in logic and geometry will create a mathematics classroom environment that improves mathematics vocabulary and stimulates interest in real problem-solving activities.  That’s what makes learning mathematics fun!

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