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By LAURAN NEERGAARD

Associated press

WASHINGTON – We know a lot about how babies learn to talk and how youngsters learn to read. Now scientists are unraveling the earliest building blocks of math – and what children know about numbers as they begin first grade seems to play a big role in how well they do everyday calculations later on.

The findings have specialists considering steps that parents might take to spur math abilities, just like they do to try to raise a good reader.

This isn’t only about trying to improve the nation’s math scores and attract kids to become engineers. It’s far more basic.

Consider: How rapidly can you calculate a tip? Do the fractions to double a recipe? Know how many quarters and dimes the cashier should hand back as your change?

About one in five adults in the U.S. lacks the math competence expected of a middle schooler, meaning they have trouble with those ordinary tasks and aren’t qualified for many of today’s jobs.

“It’s not just, can you do well in school? It’s how well can you do in your life,” says Dr. Kathy Mann Koepke, of the National Institutes of Health, which is funding much of this research into math cognition. “We are in the midst of math all the time.”

A new study shows trouble can start early.

University of Missouri researchers tested 180 seventh-graders. Those who lagged behind their peers in a test of core math skills needed to function as adults were the same kids who’d had the least number sense or fluency way back when they started first grade.

“The gap they started with, they don’t close it,” says David Geary, a cognitive psychologist who leads the study that is tracking children from kindergarten to high school in the Columbia, Mo., school system. “They’re not catching up” to the kids who started ahead.

If first grade sounds pretty young to be predicting math ability, well, no one expects tots to be scribbling sums. But this number sense, or what Geary more precisely terms “number system knowledge,” turns out to be a fundamental skill that students continually build on, much more than the simple ability to count.

Mann Koepke offers some tips:

• Don’t teach your toddler to count solely by reciting numbers. Attach numbers to a noun – “Here are five crayons: One crayon, two crayons …” or say “I need to buy two yogurts” as you pick them from the store shelf, so they’ll absorb the quantity concept.

• Talk about distance: How many steps to your ball? The swing is farther away; it takes more steps.

• Describe shapes: The ellipse is round like a circle but flatter.

• As they grow, show children how math is part of daily life, as you make change, or measure ingredients, or decide how soon to leave for a destination 10 miles away.

“We should be talking to our children about magnitude, numbers, distance, shapes as soon as they’re born,” she contends. “More than likely, this is a positive influence on their brain function.”