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Last updated: March 25. 2013 11:30PM - 1137 Views

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WASHINGTON — We know a lot about how babies learn to talk, and 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.


About 1 in 5 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.


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 Dr. 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.


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