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Does Higher-Level Number Talk Hold Key to Better Math Scores for Young Children?

A new study suggests that parents should expose their young children to larger numbers to help them advance their math skills.

The study by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh found a positive correlation between parents who discussed numbers greater than 10 and their children's math ability.

Mother-Math-Preschool-600x292-Getty.jpgThe researchers looked at interactions between 44 mothers and their children who were either 5 or 6.  Each child-mother pair spent 10 minutes playing in a laboratory setting with age-appropriate toys. Afterward, the children took a math assessment, and the parents completed questionnaires about their views on the subject. The parents also were shown sets of yellow and blue dots and, for each display, asked to report which color was more numerous. 

The play sessions were taped, and researchers later counted how many words were spoken overall and noted the amount of number words spoken. They also calculated how many small numbers, (1-5), medium numbers, (6-10), and large numbers, (greater than 10) were used.

The researchers didn't find a connection between the parents' overall number talk and their children's performance on the math assessment. But they did discover a link between parents' use of numbers greater than 10 and their child's math ability.

Importance of Parental Encouragement

Leanne Elliott is a Ph.D candidate in developmental psychology at the university and one of the study's lead researchers.

She said that in this case parents were nudging their children to do a little more than the young students thought they could. She gave the example of children and their parents pretending to buy things from a store.

"They're buying six things in this grocery store setup, and they're adding together how much all their purchases would cost," said Elliott. "Sometimes it would be a total of 20 or 30 dollars."

She said if the researchers had simply presented these numbers to the children they probably would have had trouble doing the math.

"That's where we saw a lot of that large-number talk was through parents and kids working through problems together," said Elliott. "Those [were] problems that kids probably wouldn't be able to do on their own."

But for Elliott the big takeaway is not that parents should focus on using larger numbers with their young children. She recommends that parents tailor their number talk to their child's ability.

So if a young child is comfortable counting to 5, the parents may want to push the child to raise that to 10. If a child is routinely counting to 20, the parents may want to encourage the child to go to 30.

The researchers also found that parents who were more comfortable with math were more likely to engage in number talk.

Implications for Early-Childhood Education

While this study focused on parents, Elliott said there may be some lessons here for early-childhood educators as well. She pointed to research that shows children don't receive a lot of math instruction in early-childhood settings and surmised that more number talk might help.

"The caveat, as always, is that we're just looking at this correlational study, but I think it has some promising findings for both the home and the school context," said Elliott.

However, the researchers note that the demographics of the study participants do not match society at large. Nearly 90 percent of the parents involved in this study were white and had at least a bachelor's degree. More than 70 percent of them reported that their children were exposed only to English in the home.

It's unclear what impact more diverse participants would have on the findings.

Stock photo from Getty


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