Vol. 23, No. 4, Aug. 21, 2003
Earliest steps can play a role in how well preschoolers learn math
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Ill. — On the road to trigonometry and calculus, children must first comprehend
1, 2 and 3.
That’s no small thing, says researcher Art Baroody.
a child comes to understand "two-ness" and "three-ness"
and other basic but abstract concepts lays the foundation for what comes later.
Research in recent decades shows that preschoolers have more potential to develop "informal math knowledge" than was previously realized, said Baroody, a professor of education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
"We now know that preschoolers can learn an awful lot about mathematics even before they come to school. They are not blank slates, as we used to think."
"But parents and preschool teachers should be careful to focus on the right things," Baroody said. Pushing kids too soon into counting or basic addition can lead them to learn those skills only through rote memorization, and not gain a true understanding of the concepts or patterns involved.
"It can also be frustrating and confusing for them," Baroody said. "Counting things, for instance, seems simple to us adults and a skill we take for granted. However, learning how to count is challenging to children because it involves acquiring some rather abstract ideas and coordinating a number of skills.
"Parents and teachers who want to get children started on the right foot might better help them first to recognize and distinguish among groups of one, two, and three things," he said. Learning to recognize and name these small numbers first can make learning to count easier and quicker.
The value of learning the words, in particular, came through clearly for Baroody in the results of research he has directed over the last two years. He presented those results in April at the biennial meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development, in a paper co-written by graduate students Alexis Benson and Meng-lung Lai. "My guess is that learning the number words is far more important than many people now think," he said.
In preparing children for school math, parents and preschool teachers can help most by always looking for opportunities for kids to use and discover math in everyday situations, Baroody said. It can be as simple as asking a young child if he has two shoes. "It’s not something that you can impose on them, it’s not something that you can teach directly," he said. "What you need to do is create the opportunities, create problems, get them involved, try to get them to solve it their own way."
"There is an exceptional amount of interest right now" in how young children learn about math, as part of a larger concern about math education, Baroody noted, and he is continuing to study the psychological foundations involved. His work is supported by a three-year grant from the National Science Foundation and, starting this summer, a five-year grant from the Spencer Foundation.
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