What counts when you’re learning your numbers?

My first ever post was about the importance of talking to your child and how there was a direct relationship between the amount you speak to them and the size of their vocabulary.  The study highlighted in that original post was one of the best known on the subject but the link has been found by numerous other studies.  Less research however has been done on the relationship between parents talking about numbers and how their children learn to understand what numbers mean despite the widespread acknowledgement of the importance of mathematical ability.

A study published this month in Developmental Psychology by a team from the University of Chicago seeks to start to address this imbalance in the research in this area.  The researchers led by Susan Levine used a similar design to the studies of verbal ability.  They observed 44 children on five separate occasions as they interacted at home with their parents between the ages of 14 and 30 months.  The interactions were taped and the conversation between the child and parent transcribed.  The amount of ‘number words’ (e.g. one, two, three) as well as associated words such as ‘count’ and ‘how many’ used by both the parent and the child were recorded on each occasion.  The team then tested the children’s understanding of numbers as well as their number vocabulary when they were approaching four years old.

What did they find?  The team found huge variations in the amount parents talked to their children about numbers.  While one parent mentioned numbers 257 times over the 7.5 hours of recorded interaction, one parent used number words only 4 times in total.  They also found significant variations in children’s understanding of numbers, and these variations were strongly linked to the parents’ use of number talk.  The more ‘number talk’ by parents, the more numbers children understood.  This held true even when others factors such as the socio economic status of the family was taken into account.

What does this suggest?  Talking to your baby and toddler about numbers may well help them learn what they mean.  For instance telling children how many sheep are running round the field (‘eight sheep in the field’) or counting with them (‘one, two, three..’) naming digits (‘that’s a two’,) using units of measure (‘you were four months old then’) and making comparisons between numbers (‘five is bigger than four’) are all potentially useful strategies.

Levine S C, Whealton Suriyakham L, Rowe M L, Huttenlocher J, Gunderson E A.  What counts in the development of young children’s number knowledge?  Developmental Psychology  (2010) Vol 46, no. 5, 1309-1319

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