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Do the math early for better numeracy later: report

Here’s a simple, practical equation: early-years numeracy equals later-years numeracy. Whilst it may sound obvious, a new report has emphasised just how critical young children’s math skills are to later, school-age competence in this area.

Counting on it: Early numeracy development and the preschool child by Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) research fellow Dr Kate Reid, is a synthesis of current research from neuroscience, psychology and education. It aims to help preschool teachers understand and capitalise on early numeracy development.

“Since early childhood numeracy development is so important for later school achievement, we must find ways to help early-childhood educators provide the best possible foundation for school,” Reid affirmed.

And it’s not just preschool teachers who should be aware of this; numeracy comprehension starts from birth, and might, to some extent, be innate.

“Research, which began in the field of psychology, suggested that infants process numbers, at a very basic level, well before they develop oral language,” Reid explained. “Infants’ basic capacities have also been shown to predict the number sense skills of preschoolers.” In supporting this, she referred to a study that demonstrated 6-month-olds who could distinguish between numbers were better able to count, compare numbers, know number words, and perform calculations at age 3.

When it comes to preschoolers, fostering better early-years numeracy is about more than counting objects in the yard: the development of non-numerical skills also helps. For example, self-regulatory behaviour and literacy both predict numeracy. An enhanced working memory potentially influences numeracy, too. “Yet if you focus on these things, it doesn’t have an effect on mathematics [skills]. It’s a complex, indirect relationship,” Reid clarified.

Even when developing number-crunching skills, Reid suggested it’s “about encouraging numeracy in everyday situations”, rather than explicit teaching. She gave the example of a kids’ block-building activity: “You can ask, ‘Who’s got the tallest tower?’ or ‘How many blocks are in your tower?’ instead of merely stating something like, ‘Look at your nice red tower’, which doesn’t pull out the maths inherent to that situation.”

Reid was keen to emphasise the significance of early-years numeracy, despite its low profile. “Numeracy is a …neglected part of the literacy and numeracy equation, and early numeracy, particularly, doesn’t get the kind of attention it requires,” she maintained. “Though, it’s really important.”

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