A new study suggests parents should teach their children the value of numbers by using concrete examples, instead of just repeating them out loud.
Published: November 13, 2010
by NPR Staff
In almost every home and pre-school in America, young children are being taught how to recite the alphabet and how to say their numbers.
A new study by University of Chicago psychology professor Susan Levine finds that simply repeating the numbers isn't as good as helping kids understand what they mean.
According to her study, for children to develop the math skills they'll need later on in school, it is essential that parents spend time teaching their children the value of numbers by using concrete examples -- instead of just repeating them out loud.
"Just about all 2-year-olds can rattle off the sequence from one to 10," Levine tells Weekend All Things Considered's Guy Raz. "But then, if you ask them to give you three objects ... they'll just grab a handful."
So the toddlers can say the numbers in order, but that doesn't mean they actually understand what they represent.
Levine's study looked at children whose ages ranged from about 1 to 2-and-a-half. The study followed a set of 60 families. Every four months, researchers would visit a family's home and videotape the everyday interactions between the parents and their children.
Some kids heard as few as four number words from their parents during a session.
"If you extrapolate that out over a week, some kids may be hearing as few as 20 number words and others as many as 1,800," Levine says. "So it's a huge difference in the opportunity to learn."
Also, the team noticed, the parents tended to engage their children in various kinds of number talk, from reciting number words to actually counting objects. The latter, the study found, is more effective.
"Counting objects and saying, 'Oh, you have four cars: one, two, three, four,' while you point at them -- seems to be better," Levine says.
The study found that 4-year-olds who talked more about numbers and participated in counting activities did better at number tasks than others.
Whether this head start becomes a lifelong advantage is yet to be seen. Many of the children in Levine's study are now in the third and fourth grade. Her team plans to keep monitoring the kids as long as possible. [Copyright 2010 National Public Radio]
(Soundbite of TV show, "Sesame Street")
Mr. COUNT VON COUNT: Greetings. It is I, The Count. And you're just in time to count some apples with me. Here we go. One, one apple. Two, two apples. Three, three apples. Yes, three, three apples.
GUY RAZ, host:
So it turns out that The Count from "Sesame Street" is actually on to something, at least according to a new study by the University of Chicago. A psychology professor there, Susan Levine, found that if you just repeat numbers to toddlers - you know, teaching them to count, 1, 2, 3 - well, that's not enough. It's how you talk about numbers that makes the difference, and it could actually predict how well they do in math as older kids.
Dr. SUSAN LEVINE (Psychology, University of Chicago): Parents tend to engage in various kinds of talk about number, ranging from let's recite the number words, you know, count for me...
RAZ: Right, like count with them, yeah.
Dr. LEVINE: ...to actually counting objects and talking about set size. And it turns out that that second form of counting objects and, you know, saying, oh, you have four cars, one, two, three, four, while you point at them seems to be better.
RAZ: So it's not just about the sequence, it's not just about, you know, making sure that kids can say, one, and then two, and then three, and then four, but actually showing them what that means.
Dr. LEVINE: Exactly, because just about all 2-year-olds can rattle off the sequence from one to 10. But then, if you ask them to give you three objects, they'll just grab a handful. So they can say them, but they don't understand what they mean. It's like eeny, meeny, miny, moe or A, B, C, D, E, F, G.
RAZ: So explain how you did your study.
Dr. LEVINE: What we did for the study is we went into people's homes and we asked parents to just interact with their children as they normally would. And we videotaped those interactions, then we went back to the lab and transcribed everything the parents said as well as how they gestured and everything the child said and how they gestured while they were talking.
RAZ: And so, what did you find?
Dr. LEVINE: Over that seven-and-a-half hour period, kids heard as few as four number words from their parents. And at the high-end, it was over 200. And if you extrapolate that out, you know, over a week, some kids may be hearing as few as 20 number words and others as many as 1,800. So it's a huge difference in the opportunity to learn.
RAZ: So you were looking at kids between the ages of 14 and 30 months.
Dr. LEVINE: Right. From about a year old to 2 1/2 years old.
RAZ: Now, all those kids are in third and fourth grade now. What kind of correlation are you finding between their mathematical abilities at school and the way their parents talk to them about numbers?
Dr. LEVINE: We haven't yet related the early number talk to their math achievement at the third and fourth grade level. But, you know, when we look at how the early number talk predicts what the kids know about number at four years of age, there is a strong correlation in terms of kids' understanding on a task where we say to them 0.24, and there might be on one side of the page four dots and on the other side three dots.
Kids' understanding of what four means or three means or five means is really correlated to how much the parents talk to them about number as well as whether they gave them the talk linked to objects rather than just talking about, you know, let's recite the number words.
RAZ: That's University of Chicago psychology professor Susan Levine. Her study about how preschoolers learn numbers is in the journal, Developmental Psychology.
Professor Levine, thank you so much.
Dr. LEVINE: Thank you very much.
Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.