Math IS related to reading … 5 things to know

I grew up at a time when “math was not that important for girls.” My teachers and parents didn’t think it was a problem that I wasn’t very good at math in elementary and high school. By contrast, my brother was really good at math, and that was important because “he was going to need it ─ he was the boy.”

In college I majored in biology because I liked science, barely squeaking through the required chemistry because of math deficiencies. And because of the math deficiencies, I couldn’t go on to graduate school in the sciences. An advisor suggested I go back and fix the math gaps ─ it would “only take a few years.” But who had the time and money to trudge back through math when I already believed it was not possible to do math. My stock answer became, “I didn’t get the gene for math.” So I pursued “non-math” pathways.

A year ago I interviewed a friend for a Z House Stories blog on reading. She grew up in India and I thought she would have interesting insights to share about the type of stories her parents read to her, and in turn, what she read to her two children growing up in the U.S.

My first question, “Do you remember your parents reading to you as a child?” elicited a “No.”

So I went to the second question, “Did anyone else read to you?” thinking that a sibling, aunt/uncle, or grandparent may have read to her. “No,” she answered quickly.

“Well, at what age do you remember reading on your own?I went to next, thinking she might have been a highly gifted early reader.

“I really don’t remember reading at a very early age,” she said.

She must have noticed how surprised I was with her answers because she offered the following clarifications. “We did math in my family from the time I can remember. Math problems, pattern work, thinking about math problems. And that’s what I have done with my children too. I didn’t read stories to them, like fairy tales or animal books when they were pre-readers. I worked with them on math problems.

This seemed so antithetical to my views on literacy development that I decided not to pursue the usual “reading” interview questions further. This conversation has stalled inside my mind for more than a year, until this week when I read some new research on the relationship between math and reading.

It’s well known that early childhood education lays important groundwork for a child’s later learning. But it’s not well known that not everything included in preschool education is equally important. So what is most important in preschool education? If you’re thinking, reading, read on…

Researchers analyzing data from the U.S., Canada and Great Britain have looked at the relationship between several measures of school readiness and later school success.They found that math skills are the most important predictor of later success. “Early math concepts [such] as knowledge of numbers … were the most powerful predictors of later learning.[1] While there were also “important predictors such as vocabulary; knowing letters, words and beginning and ending word sounds; and attention skills,[2]” other researchers have found that “early knowledge of math not only predicts later success in math, but also predicts later reading achievement even better than do early reading skills[3]

And we know how critically important it is for children to develop good reading skills. It’s the sad, troubling statistic that “students who are not proficient readers by third grade are four times more likely to drop out of school compared to those who are proficient readers.” [4] And “children with persistent math problems in elementary school are 13 percentage points less likely to graduate from high school and 29 percentage points less likely to attend college.”[5]

So for those of us who think we can’t do math ─ and why should our children and grandchildren be any different ─ we need to think again.

Five things researchers want us to know about math[6]

#1  Early math can predict later success

  • Early knowledge of math strongly predicts later success in math.
  • Pre-school math knowledge predicts achievement even into high school.
  • Math knowledge predicts later reading achievement even better than early reading skills.
  • Doing more math increases oral language abilities (e.g., vocabulary, inference, grammatical complexity).

#2  All children have math potential ─ the key is to start early

  • Children’s “play” can involve math in important ways ─ preschoolers already typically engage in substantial amounts of pre-math activity in their free play.
  • Early childhood programs that include more higher-level play (e.g., exploring patterns, shapes and spatial relations; comparing magnitudes; counting objects) promote important self-regulation and executive functions in children, regardless of the children’s income level or gender.
  • Early math activities lay the groundwork for high quality math ─ and if high quality math education does not begin in preschool and continue throughout the early years, most children will be “trapped in a trajectory of failure.”

#3  Educators underestimate the potential of children to do math 

  • In many countries ─ not only in the U.S. ─ educators underestimate beginning students’ abilities to do math (e.g., to count or subtract objects). 
  • When educators underestimate what students already know/can learn in math, they’re not likely to present appropriate, challenging math activities to children.
  • The most successful math instruction comes from a specialist who understands the subject matter and the most effective ways young children learn math.
  • Most schools do not have early math instructors who specialize in math ─ schools should consider designating a teacher in each grade to be responsible for teaching only math to all students.

#4  Math is for all children

  • All students need a “math intervention” and most will benefit from early math.
  • The poorest children need math interventions the most. There’s a full three-year difference in math developmental level for students from low-resource versus high-resource communities.

#5  A lot is known about how children think about/learn math  

  • Educators ─ including parents ─ can use research to plan effective math interventions for children at the preschool and early school levels.
  • Good examples of effective models of instruction are the Building Blocks curriculum and TRIAD scale-up model.[7]

And all this leads me to believe that my friend is onto something with her focus on math with her children, just as she learned early math from her parents in India. I contacted her to share my latest thinking, and she described further how she approached math as a parent. “The type of math I have introduced to my children is mostly word problems that result in higher learning. Topics include morals/lessons, inspirational stories, encouragement, the future, possible career choices.”  She gave me an example. “As a veterinarian what would you do? The farmer’s wife brings in a medium-size sick dog. The dog needs pain killers. You know you have ½ teaspoon of medications per 20 lbs. for a buffalo. As a vet, you know the dosage is not the same for a dog. How much would you prescribe for the dog? What is safe to start with?” For a basic-level, her children read the table she gives them that contains a list of different doses for different animals to find the answer. For an intermediate-level, her children create an equation and solve the problem. For advanced, they project to different animals and change the dosages. She summarizes: “There’s lots of reading. And there’s applicability to understanding what a vet does. There’s lots of math basic and advanced plus basic statistics. No matter how you slice or dice the analysis, math/statistics are the basis of life. A universal language that requires no translation – like a smile in any language.”

Her approach raises a challenge for many of us. Do we read stories to our young children or do we lay out math problems? My vote is to do both. And to challenge us to think about the research:

  • There is no “gene” for math. We can all do math.
  • It’s important to start math early to have the biggest impact on children ─ all of our children.
  • The benefits will snowball: we’ll get better math knowledge/skills and reading and later success in school.
  • The evidence is in ─ educators should move away from a “reading only” early intervention approach to an approach that adds in math thinking and reasoning.

Now how much medication does that medium-sized sick dog need …

[1] Duncan, Dorset, Claessens, Magnuson, Huston, Klebanov, Pagani, Feinstein, brooks-Gunn, Sexton, Duckworth, Japel. (2007). School Readiness and later achievement. Developmental Psychology, 43, 1428-1446.

[2] Romano, Babchishin, Pagani, Kohen. (2010) School readiness and later achievement: Replication and extension using a nationwide Canadian survey. Developmental Psychology, 46, 995-1007.  Jordan, Kaplan, Ramineni, Locuniak. (2009). Early math matters: Kindergarten number competence and later mathematics outcomes. Development Psychology. 45. 850-867.

[3] Clements and Sarama. (October 2013). Math in the Early Years: A Strong Predictor for Later School Success, in The Progress of Education Reform, Education Commission of the States, Vol. 14, No. 5.

[4] AASCU. (2012). Serving America’s Future: Increasing College Readiness. P. 14.

[5] Duncan and Magnuson, University of California-Irvine report: Early Math Skills Predict Later Academic Success. So how does math impact reading.  What are five findings about math education that are important to think about?

[6] Research findings from Clements and Sarama (October 2013) in Math in the Early Years: A Strong Predictor for Later School Success, in The Progress of Education Reform, Education Commission of the States, Vol. 14, No. 5.

[7] Building Blocks is a math curriculum for young children. The curriculum uses print materials, manipulatives and computers extensively to teach basic math concepts. The approach helps children develop early math skills through everyday activities (e.g., building blocks, art, songs, puzzles, counting numbers, transforming shapes). The curriculum is taught under the TRIAD model (stands for technology-enhanced, research-based instruction, assessment, and professional development).

Learning from Amanda Ripley about the smartest kids in the world

I like to bend back the corners of pages in books to make it easier to find memorable passages later on. There are eight bent-back pages in my copy of Amanda Ripley’s recent book, “The Smartest Kids in the World–and How They Got That Way.” So, what’s on those eight pages that are so memorable?

Before I get to the eight passages, a few words about the book overall. The title tells us almost everything we need to know. There are smarter kids in the world than ours ─ and there are some specific ways they got smarter.

First we learn the about the nations that have the smartest kids ─ Finland, South Korea, and Poland. And it’s not just some of the kids in these nations that are smarter ─ it’s virtually all of them. So we deduct from this that their schools ─and likely their parents and communities – are all doing something to contribute to their smarter children.

Then we learn what “smart” is in this context. Smart is the ability to think critically and solve new problems in reading, math, and science.

We learn too how educational assessment folks have determined which nations’ kids are smarter, and by implication, which educational systems are the best.The test is the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment), first given to a few hundred thousand teenagers in 43 countries in 2000. It’s a two hour test that aims to measure the ‘kind of advanced thinking and communications skills that people need to thrive in the modern world.’ (page 15)

The lion share of the book follows three American teenagers who spend a year living in Finland, South Korea and Poland. We meet their friends, school teachers, parents and host parents ─ and learn about each of these nation’s efforts to build and sustain strong educational systems.There are numerous insights for parents and educators about American students and schools ─ and how we compare to students and schools in other countries.This is a book worth reading.

Here are the eight passages culled from bent-back pages in my copy of the book that carry messages that really resonate with me:

  1. Importance of  early consistent reading to children: ‘Parents who read to their children almost every day when they were young have kids who performed much better in reading, all around the world, by the time they were 15 years old.’ (page 108)
  2. Both academic and character skills are key to later success: ‘When it comes to predicting which kids grew up to be adults who succeeded in life and in their jobs, academic skills only went so far ─ other skill sets were important too ─motivation, empathy, self-control, persistence. And different communities and cultures differed in what they did (or did not do) to promote these traits in their children.’ (page 120)
  3. American classrooms by and large don’t teach math effectively – we need common standards and in-depth content:American textbooks tend to be too long, covering and repeating too many topics in too little depth. Internationally, the average 8th grade math textbook is 225 pages compared to the average American 8th grade math textbook of 800 pages. Teachers can’t get through all this information so they pick and choose what they cover, and different kids as a result get different content covered because we don’t have common curricular standards in the U.S.[1]  (page 74)
  4. Outcomes testing is a big part of the educational systems in high-performing countries, and these tests are high-stakes: ‘The countries with the best education outcomes all had tests at the end of high school. Many determine where they would likely go to college.Teenagers from countries with these kinds of tests performed over 16 points higher on PISA than those in countries without them.The U.S. had a surplus of tests, few of which had meaningful effects on kids’ lives.’ (pages 155-156)
  5. In high-performing countries, whole communities (schools, parents, businesses, government, students) support a culture of accountability for learning: ‘Finland had required a matriculation test for 160 years; it was a way to motivate kids and teachers toward a common goal, and it made a high school diploma  mean something. Korea rerouted air traffic for their graduation test. Polish kids studied for their tests on nights and weekend, and they arrived for the exam wearing suits, ties and dresses. In America, however, many people still believed in a different standard …students who passed the required classes and came to school the required number of days should receive their diplomas, regardless of what they had learned or what would happen to them when they tried to get a job…’  (page 185)
  6. Countries that have had to improve their lot have learned that educational rigor is key: ‘There was consensus in Finland, Korea, and Poland that all children had to learn higher-order thinking in order to thrive in the world. In every case, that agreement had been born out of crisis: economic imperatives that had focused the national mind in a way that good intentions never would. That consensus about rigor had then changed everything else. High school in Finland, Korea, and Poland had a purpose…their teachers were more serious….highly educated, well-trained, and carefully chosen.They had enough autonomy to do serious work, that meant they had a better chance of adapting and changing along with their students and the economy. The students had independence too, which made school more bearable and cultivated more driven, self-sufficient high school graduates.’ (page 191)
  7. There is no consensus around academic rigor for American kids:  ‘Most American kids hadn’t needed a very rigorous education, and they hadn’t gotten it. Wealth had made rigor optional in America. But everything had changed. In an automated, global economy, kids needed to be driven; they need to know how to adapt, since they would be doing it all their lives.They needed a culture of rigor.’ (page 192)
  8. If other nations can do it, America can too: ‘The stories of Finland, Korea, and Poland … reveal what is possible. All children must learn rigorous higher-order thinking to thrive in the modern world. The only way to do that is by creating a serious intellectual culture in schools, one that kids can sense is real and true.’ (page 199)

Ripley’s book brings a lot of lessons home. While no country has the be-all, end-all educational system (that’s another blog), America can clearly do better. As a community let’s demand greater academic rigor in both our schools and parenting. And while we’re working on that, let’s follow one of the simpler, more do-able prescriptions for smarter kids on page 108: read to kids most every day when they’re young.

[1] Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are on their way in most states in the U.S., so hopefully this problem will get better.