Why are math skills as important as literacy?

“Math class is tough!”

Those words, uttered by “Teen Talk Barbie” in 1992, sparked outrage among many who believed the doll reinforced the stereotype that girls are bad at mathematics.

Twenty years on, girls and boys struggle with basic math skills. And while Barbie maker Mattel received a sharp rebuke for its sexism, few people take umbrage at the defeatist premise that math is hard.

That troubles Laurier researchers Donna Kotsopulos and Joanne Lee. They believe innumeracy is no more acceptable or inevitable than illiteracy.

Kotsopoulos, a mathematics educator, and Lee, a developmental psychologist, study mathematical ability in children between 12 and 36 months. This might seem young, but the skills established at this critical developmental stage have a lifelong effect.

They followed 140 children over four years, studying what parents do during playtime and what kids learn during that time. They found that even parents who routinely read to their babies – key to developing verbal skills – often neglect the equally important activity of early “math talk.”

“Parents often don’t engage in purposeful play with their children, and they don’t regularly engage in math talk. If they do, it is at a very low level,” says Kotsopoulos. In fact, parents often praise children for incorrect counting, without ever modeling the correct way to count.

With complementary expertise in applied education and cognitive development, the pair developed a workshop program called LittleCounters™, which helps parents learn how to cultivate numeracy as effectively as literacy.

The play-focused program provides tools for parents and their very young children to develop number concepts through stories, games, songs, and daily activities such as snack time.

Often the workshops involve simple tips as simple as not counting backwards until the child has mastered how to count forward.

“The response is almost always, ‘Oh, I didn’t know that. But it makes sense!’” says Lee.
Kotsopoulos and Lee have found that families who actively talk about these ideas allow their children to move beyond verbal skills to internalize the key math concepts that provide a solid base for later math proficiency.

**Major funders for this research include Social Sciences and Humanities Council (SSHRC), Canadian Foundation for Innovation (CFI)–Leaders Opportunity Fund, Ontario Research Fund–Research Infrastructure Grant, Ontario Centres of Excellence (OCE), Knowledge Network for Applied Education Research (KNAER), and The Fields Institute at University of Toronto.

Joanne Lee

Joanne Lee

Wilfrid Laurier University

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