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Schools Shouldn't Subtract Math For Young Students


July 13, 2012

Whatever happened to mathematics?

It takes only a brief visit to a preschool or kindergarten classroom in Connecticut to discover what very young children are learning these days: reading and writing. Even at 4 years of age children are naming letters, identifying rhyming words, acquiring vocabulary or writing in journals.

Some teachers are abandoning sharing time, finger plays and even informal story reading in favor of new methods for promoting literacy that have impressive scientific names "dialogic reading" or "explicit instruction in phonemic awareness." Do children still learn how to share, make puzzles or build with blocks in preschool and kindergarten? Maybe. But literacy will be at the center of nearly any publicly funded early childhood classroom you visit.

These trends are not altogether bad. New research suggests that children can learn literacy-related abilities at a very young age. But in the midst of what has become literacy frenzy, I would like to ask: Are math-related counting songs, shape puzzles, dice games or sorting and ordering activities once staples in early childhood education programs no longer important? Interestingly, in a study of six large, longitudinal data sets of young children, Greg Duncan and his colleagues at University of California, Irvine, found that early math abilities were a better predictor of academic success in elementary school than were literacy skills. That's right: Math trumps literacy.

What worries me is that literacy has steadily squeezed out mathematics in preschool and kindergarten. In a recent study of many preschool classrooms, conducted at Vanderbilt University, math teaching accounted for about 2.5 percent of instructional time. We found the same thing in an investigation we conducted on mathematics and play at our Center for Early Childhood Education. Literacy was everywhere in the classrooms we observed; mathematics was nowhere to be found.

What can teachers and parents do to achieve a better math/literacy balance in young children's development? First, preschool and kindergarten teachers should plan at least as many activities and lessons to promote mathematics as they do literacy experiences. This may require professional development, which in my experience is focused so exclusively on teaching reading and writing in our state. Similarly, parents should spend as much time with their children playing math games as they do reading to them.

Second, public school superintendents and principals should stem the exodus of traditional play materials from preschool and kindergarten classrooms a disturbing trend in Connecticut. Three play activities in particular should remain a fundamental part of any preschool or kindergarten to enhance math abilities: blocks, board games and puzzles. All three have been found, in well-designed, controlled studies, to promote later math performance.

Parents should make sure these experiences are provided for their children at home. They should refrain from consigning these materials those old "Candy Land," "Chutes and Ladders," or "Hi-Ho! Cherry-O" boards, for example to the trash bin or tag sale. These are premier math teaching tools. On some evenings, parents might turn off the television or computer, and even set down that high-quality picture book they are reading to their children, to initiate one of these math-rich play activities.

Finally, parents and teachers should have mathematical conversations with young children. In a study we conducted at our center, math talk with adults was one of the best predictors of growth in math abilities in preschool, particularly for children living in poverty. Initiating chats about mathematics is easy. The world is filled with mathematical problems to talk about. As children try to create a long block from several shorter ones in the classroom or to determine how many napkins to place on the table at dinner so everyone in the family has one, an adult can simply ask: "How did you figure that out?" As children answer, they will think more deeply about length, number or other math concepts.

My message is simple: Math counts. And math learning can happen in the most natural of ways building with blocks, solving a puzzle, playing a game, chanting "Five Little Pumpkins," or singing "This Old Man" at group time or at home. Our school reform efforts should keep math in mind as we redesign preschools and kindergarten and prepare early childhood teachers in Connecticut.

Jeffrey Trawick-Smith holds the Phyllis Waite Endowed Chair in Early Childhood Education at the Center for Early Childhood Education at Eastern Connecticut State University.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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