Does Higher-Level Number Talk Hold Key to Better Math Scores for Young Children?

October 16, 2017

A recent study from the University of Pittsburgh suggests that parents and early childhood educators should introduce numbers greater than 10 to help young children advance their math skills.

The researchers focused on children who were either 5 or 6 years old. 44 mothers and their children were paired in a laboratory setting with age-appropriate toys. After each 10-minute play session, the children took a math assessment. The play sessions were taped and the research team counted then number of words spoken overall, then how many small numbers (1-5), medium numbers (6-10), and large numbers (greater than 10) were used. When combined, the results of the math evaluations and word count data revealed a link between parents’ use of numbers greater than 10 and their child’s math ability.

The Pittsburg study mirrors earlier, foundational research at the University of Chicago focusing on the relationship of parent number talk and a critical aspect of mathematical development - cardinal number knowledge (e.g. knowing that “three” refers to sets of three entities. In the Chicago study, lead researchers Elizabeth Gunderson and Susan Levine found that “parent’s number talk involving counting or labeling sets of present, visible objects is related to children’s later cardinal-number knowledge, whereas other types of parent number talk are not. In addition, number talk that refers to large sets of present objects (4 to 10) that fall outside children’s ability to track individual objects is more robustly predictive of children’s later cardinal-number knowledge than talk about smaller sets.”

The takeaway? In both the Pittsburg and Chicago studies, the use of visual manipulatives is central to the learning outcomes. This suggests that the same would be the case whether the activity is at home or in school, whether presented by parents or teachers. Leanne Elliott, one of the lead researchers in the Pittsburg study, points out “if the researchers had simply presented these numbers to the children they probably would have had trouble doing the math.”


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