A recent longitudinal research study led by Tutrang Nguyen, School of Education, University of California at Irvine found preschool numeracy abilities to be the strongest predictors of later mathematics achievement, with advanced counting competencies more predictive than basic counting competencies.
The research team, including members from the University of Denver and Florida’s Saint Leo University, set out to investigate whether the kind of mathematical knowledge promoted by the various pre-established standards documents such as the National Research Council Mathematics Learning in Early Childhood: Paths Toward Excellence and Equity actually predict later mathematics achievement.
The study focused on associations between preschool mathematical competencies and mathematics achievement at the fifth grade level. Specific domains cited in standards set forth by state and national panels, such as early geometry, patterning and measurement, spatial thinking, and data skills were examined…as well as counting and numeracy competencies. Many of these domains were significantly predictive of later achievement, indicating that children may rely on multiple domains of early mathematics knowledge as they progress through the grades. However, the researchers found that counting and numeracy skills – especially advanced counting skills – were most predictive of later math success.
Summarizing the study, the researchers write “our results imply that understanding the principles of counting beyond mere rote memorization may give students an advantage when they encounter more difficult mathematics later in school.” Preschool-aged children “need to be deliberately supported through classroom instruction with focused time and practice to foster their mathematical development.” Counting strategies in appropriate games can help facilitate learning both at home and in school, the study found.
Children from low-SES backgrounds were a primary focus of the research. Assessing basic competencies as children start school can help researchers and educators identify children likely to struggle with math so that more services can be targeted toward those children. If strong predictors can be successfully targeted by teachers early in school, “then perhaps the education system can prevent at-risk children from falling further behind,” the study concludes. With “strong theoretical reasons to believe these skills are important, then we may be able to design interventions to teach these skills.”