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Saturday, November 13, 2010 - 1:08pm

Talking Numbers Counts For Kids' Math Skills

In almost every home and pre-school in America, young children are being taught how to recite the alphabet and how to say their numbers.

A new study by University of Chicago psychology professor Susan Levine finds that simply repeating the numbers isn't as good as helping kids understand what they mean.

According to her study, in order for children to develop the math skills that they will need later on in school, it is essential that parents spend time teaching their children the value of numbers by using concrete examples -- instead of just repeating them out loud.

"Just about all 2-year-olds can rattle off the sequence from 1 to 10," Levine tells Weekend All Things Considered's Guy Raz. "But then, if you ask them to give you three objects ... they'll just grab a handful."

So the toddlers can say the numbers in order, but that doesn't mean they actually understand what they represent.

Her study looked at children whose ages ranged from about 1 to 2-and-a-half years. The study followed a set of 60 families. Every four months, researchers would visit a family's home and videotape the everyday interactions between parents and child.

Some kids only heard as few as four number words from their parents during a session. "At the high end, it was over 200," Levine says.

"If you extrapolate that out over a week, some kids may be hearing as few as 20 number words and others as many as 1,800," Levine says. "So it's a huge difference in the opportunity to learn."

Also, the team noticed, the parents tended to engage their children in various kinds of number talk, from reciting number words to actually counting objects. The latter, the study found, is more effective.

Counting objects and saying, 'Oh, you have four cars: one, two, three, four,' while you point at them -- seems to be better," Levine says.

The study found that 4-year-olds who talked more about numbers and participated in counting activities did better at number tasks than others.

Whether this head start becomes a lifelong advantage is yet to be seen. Many of the children in Levine's study are now in the third and fourth grade, and her team plans to keep monitoring the kids as long as possible. [Copyright 2010 National Public Radio]