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, for children to develop the math skills they'll 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 one 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.
Levine's study looked at children whose ages ranged from about 1 to 2-and-a-half. The study followed a set of 60 families. Every four months, researchers would visit a family's home and videotape the everyday interactions between the parents and their children.
Some kids heard as few as four number words from their parents during a session.
"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. Her team plans to keep monitoring the kids as long as possible.