Learning Math is Like Learning a Foreign Language: The Earlier You Learn It, the Better

Family Matters on 07.12.11
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We know that it's easier for children to begin learning a foreign language, playing a musical instrument or practicing gymnastics.

Now researchers at the University of Missouri have found that math is like that.

I suppose it's not surprising. Math and music are strongly related and many (including myself) would liken math to a foreign language. Once you understand the grammatical basics, if you will, the rest of it comes a lot easier.

I have a case study of sorts in my house: Our older son, who's 7 and just finished the first grade.

We started emphasizing basic math when he was in pre-kindergarten. Simple addition: 3+4, 2+2 - stuff he could figure out on his fingers. Then we upped the ante and gave him some addition where he had to keep one number in his head, but could use his hands to add the second number - 7+3, 8+5, even 9+7.

He loved it. Absolutely loved it. It made him feel great to see check mark after check mark on his correct answers. By the time he finished pre-k, he was doing double-digit addition. By the end of kindergarten, he could do four-digit addition and subtraction.

What's more, he wanted to. And his affinity for math led to him wanting to learn to play piano, because he recognizes the musical patterns, almost as if he's visualizing math.

Our younger son (almost 5) hasn't accelerated to the same degree as Rafael, but Markus understands basic addition and we take any opportunity to ask how many there is of something. It's the conceptual leap from learning your numbers to understanding that these numbers are a quantity and how to visualize them.

The University of Missouri study was of a 177 students from 12 different elementary schools who've been tracked since kindergarten. They're in the fifth grade now and the study plans to follow them through the 10th grade. 

Basically, first-graders who understood how numbers were ordered and how they were quantities had faster growth in math skills over five years.

As further proof that reading and math use different sides of the brain: These early math skills had "no impact on future reading ability."

In some ways, this study is one of those no-brainers. "Study math earlier, do better." But it's the specificity of the times and the ages and the conceptual leap that makes this interesting to me. They need these basic math skills by first grade to pull ahead. And if there's an area the U.S. has been lagging in, it's math and science.

How have you worked with your children to build their interest and skills in mathematics?

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